On Thursday, July 30, 2015 Chinese Defense Ministry accused the United States of fomenting trouble in the region by working conscientiously to militarize the South China Sea. China alleged that the US is seemingly taking sides with some other Asian countries like Japan and Philippines with which it has perennial territorial disputes.
Are Chinese allegations against the United States justified? What are the series of events that eventually make the tension in the region near all-time high and becoming uncomfortably dangerous?
U.S. surveillance in the South China Sea
On May 21, 2015, the United States Navy caught on camera using its P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft some China’s dredging vessels around the Fiery Cross Reef, which is part of the disputed Spratly Islands. Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines also considered these islands as their own. Recent subtle moves to forcefully retake these islands by China has not only created hot debates and fiery protests from other countries disputing its illegitimate claims but also nudged the region tensely towards a military confrontation. In addition to sending military and civilian personnel to monitor the islands regularly, China has also recently constructed an airfield spanning between 200 and 300 meters for military drills on Spratly Islands.
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The United States has always had one clear message for China: stop the militarization around the islands and resolve the disputes amicably by applying international laws. So far, China has not chosen a path of peace and has been wielding or displaying its newly acquired military capabilities, threatening its Asian rivals as far as those contentious islands are concerned. Imagine, China comes second only to the United States in military spending: Despite the extent of poverty that affects most of Chinese populace, Chinese leaders are undeterred to spend a whopping amount of money on purchasing new and modern weaponry. With an annual budget of $131 billion, China can easily maintain its 1.3 million soldiers and add to its fleet of over 1000 fighter jets, 200 attack helicopters, 9150 tanks, 1770 Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems (MLRSs), a combination of dangerous weapons its Asian rivals do not have in their military arsenals.
It is not only China’s gigantic army that makes its Asian neighbors to be perpetually under panic attacks, current acts of provocations by Chinese military officials confirm that the Asian Tiger has no immediate plan to resolve the territorial and maritime disputes it has with its counterparts in the region peacefully. Take for instance, in July 2015, China paraded the contested islands with over 100 naval ships and dozens of warplanes that reportedly scattered live ammunition all over the place. Chinese military officials had quickly dispelled this military drill as an act of threat against its rivals but tagged it as a routine military exercise. But how about the scary and unusual military games carried out by Chinese soldiers near the Myanmar border, showing off the power and reach of its ground-to-air rockets and ballistic missiles? Does a peace-loving nation engage in scare tactics that could nervously put its neighbors on the edge of their seats?
Chinese military aggression
It is safe to ask this thought-provoking question: who is actually militarizing the region? China or the United States? In due loyalty to its allies in the region, most especially Japan and the Philippines, the United States could not remain inactive in the face of all these forms of aggression displayed by the Chinese military. It is on record that the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States led to the establishment of US bases in Japan. And similar military pact with the Philippines saw the location of 5 US bases in the country, the military outpost where the US Army hopes to launch a defensive mission in case should Chinese soldiers go berserk and begin to attack its Asian rivals.
Some American pundits have always criticized US involvement in the South China Sea territorial problem; some see the US actions as unnecessary and incursionary. Those points of view are not only misguided but also quite unfortunate. This is because the United States stands to lose a lot if it fails to be involved in the impasse. American business and political interests are obviously at stake if China is left to go on rampage unchecked: And there is no better way to make China feel the might and concern of the United States by sending Chinese leaders some strong warnings. Any attempt to let China undermine the security of US chief allies like Japan and the Philippines will send wrong signals across the globe that the US is not capable of fulfilling its statutory promises made by agreeing to security treaties with its allies.
Consequently, the United States’ response to China’s military terrorism has been swift and strong. Despite holding regular reconnaissance missions to spy on Chinese activities in the disputed areas, the US put up a heavy show of military presence by conducting joint military drills with its allies in the region. In the past months, the United States had charted the South China Sea with its state-of-the-art military equipment. The US jammed into the contested maritime territories with its mammoth aircraft carriers, which included the missile-guided cruiser USS Chosin (CG 65), USS Nimitz (CVN 68), USS Rentz (FFG 46), USS Pinkney (DDG 91), USS Sampson (DDG 102) and missile-guided destroyers. Only this massive show of force can actually deter China from taking preemptive strikes against its disgruntled neighbors.
U.S. and the Asian territorial conflicts
Has the United States gone too far in its involvement in the Asian territorial conflicts? Not necessarily so. United States has a close and robust relationship with Japan, which dated to the early 1960s. In fact, the United States wrote Japan’s current Pacifist Constitution, and one of the clauses in it is that the United States must be ready to deploy its military might to defend the island country in the face of any military aggression. China has a long history of bickering and disagreement with Japan, based on the checkered history between the two nations. If anything, Chinese leaders have never taken if off their table to possibly punish Japan for its past militarization, during which hundreds of thousands of Chinese people were maltreated and some killed by Japanese Imperial soldiers. Similarly, Chinese relations with countries like Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Indonesia have always been strained. It would amount to stupidity to allow China to cause preventable carnage by attacking its weaker Asian neighbors.
So, will China ever decide to fight the United States over what it perceived as incursion of American imperialism into its domestic matters? That is yet to be seen: But there could be frosty relationships ahead between the United States and China as the newly elected US president in just over a year from now may perceive China as the main threat to America’s influence in the region. It is possible that this possible power tussle may cause frictions in both economic and political interactions between the first and second largest economy in the world. To a certain degree, that may be fine: Because without fair and equitable competition it is almost impossible for nations to grow. But what is absolutely unimaginable is to let China continue to harass its rival by showing off its heavy military hardware. And if unrestrained, China may even consider firing some warning shots that may spark unexpected regional territorial war: Something the world does not need at this moment of economic doldrums.