For years now, China has been at war against the United States in the South China Sea — only Washington didn’t notice until the process was well underway. The Chinese way of war, modeled after the philosopher of middle antiquity, Sun Tzu, is to win without ever having to fight. Thus, the Chinese have been proceeding by microsteps: reclaim an island here, build a runway there, install a missile battery in a third place, deploy an oil exploration rig temporarily in disputed waters, establish a governorate, and so on. Each step is designed to create a small fact, but without eliciting a military response from the other side, since the Chinese know they may be a generation away from matching the U.S. Navy and Air Force in fighting capability.
The latest chapter in this process occurred earlier this month, when a Chinese warship dangerously came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur, a guided missile destroyer, in the vicinity of the Gaven Reefs.
China is not a rogue state and its policy makes perfect sense, given its legitimate geopolitical aims. Beijing’s approach to the South China Sea is quite comparable to the United States’ approach to the Caribbean during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it sought to establish strategic dominance over its adjacent sea. Domination of the Caribbean gave the United States effective control over the Western Hemisphere and, thus, allowed it to pivotally affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere throughout the 20th century. Chinese domination of the South China Sea in the 21st century will do no less for China.
Effective control of the South China Sea will give China unfettered access to the wider Pacific, allow it to further soften up Taiwan — the northern boundary of the South China Sea — and, most important, make it a two-ocean naval power. Indeed, the South China Sea is the gateway to the Indian Ocean — the 21st century’s most critical body of water, which functions as the global energy interstate connecting the hydrocarbon fields of the Middle East with the middle-class conurbations of East Asia. China’s military actions in the South China Sea are inseparable from its commercial empire-building across the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal and the eastern Mediterranean.
Read the full article in The Washington Post.
More from CNAS
CommentaryWashington’s Missing China Strategy
The Biden administration has repeatedly identified China as the United States’ foremost foreign policy challenge. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has referred to China as th...
By Richard Fontaine
Executive Summary China and North Korea pose intertwined challenges for U.S. and allied policy. The Korean Peninsula constitutes just one area among many in U.S.-China relatio...
By Jacob Stokes
CommentaryThe Biden administration just stalled China’s advance in the Indo-Pacific
Australia, by intensifying the military competition with China, could tee up a chain of as yet unforeseen events....
By Robert D. Kaplan
CommentaryChina tariff policies flounder without a strategy
The White House ought to be asking a series of questions. What problem are we responding to? What are we trying to achieve? How will 301s and tariffs further that?...
By Van Jackson