Christopher Beres: Why the U.S. Needs to Keep an Eye on the South China Sea

Picture this. An operation code-named Time Machine is underway.

B-1, B-52, and B-2 bombers from U.S. bases in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, Darwin in Australia and Guam and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean conduct coordinated strikes using “low observable cruise missiles” against China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. This is followed by a second wave of warplanes that drop “bunker-buster” bombs and other earth-penetrating munitions to pulverize the artificial islands into sand.

The islands’ runways, hangars housing jet fighters, surface-to-air and anti-ship missile batteries, and radar arrays have all been obliterated, rendering China’s “Anti-Access Area-Denial” strategy which calls for pushing the U.S. Navy, specifically its carrier strike groups, out of the South China Sea and therefore out of striking range of mainland China, “dead in the water”.

After the bombing, remotely operated underwater drones cut the undersea fiberoptic cables between the islands which carry encrypted military communications to the hardened undersea cable system along China’s east coast and also serve as an underwater sound surveillance system for surface ships and submarines coming into the area. The “phone line” or detection technology linking these cables to China’s land-based weapons systems “goes dead”.

U.S. forces and allies throughout the Pacific stand-by.

President Donald Trump had his fill of China’s threats and duplicity and, being fully apprised by his admirals and generals, decided to act. First and foremost, he had to protect America’s national security interests and, second, he had to halt the Politburo’s 21st-century imperial ambitions in the Pacific. He realized that without its artificial islands, their offensive strategy to subjugate the South China Sea littoral states and steal their resources fails, as does their strategy to conquer Taiwan and steal Japan and South Korea’s resources from the East Asia Sea.

American agents for China – academics and journalists and, sadly, politicians – cry that China’s plan to deny U.S. forces access and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was purely defensive in nature and that China has no imperial ambitions. They are wrong: China is the only country attempting to expand its territorial jurisdiction post-World War II at the expense of its neighbors, not only in the waters of the East and South China seas but also on land in Indian territory. That is, until now.

Time Machine will restore the 1974 status quo in the South China Sea, which was when China began its offensive strategy by seizing the Paracel Islands from Vietnam.

China’s imperial drive for territorial jurisdiction was not characterized by blitzkrieg invasion. Instead, China acted insidiously, camouflaging offense as defense; its strategy relying on dis-aggregating its actions and then pursuing them separately in such a manner as to allow the pieces to fall in place. Rather than invading its neighbors like the Nazis or imperial Japan, China instead used many smaller actions that as an accumulated whole nearly produced the same result.

China seized the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974, the Johnson Reef from Vietnam in 1988, the Mischief Reef from The Philippines in 1995 and the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012; it built at least seven artificial islands in territory belonging to its neighbors to advance its illegal claims to the South China Sea.  In the East China Sea, China intended to do the same to the uninhabited Senkaku Islands which belong to Japan, America’s primary treaty ally in the Pacific.

It followed each action with an intelligence operation based on one of the most effective methods of propaganda: repetition. This entails the incessant repetition of the same statements so that people get used to them and begin to accept them, relying not on critical thinking, but on faith mechanisms.

China would first stake a claim on a territory and then keep repeating its claim at all platforms and on all possible occasions. It would launch propaganda disputing the claim of the other party to such an extent that the territory in question would be recognized as a legitimate dispute between China and the other country. In doing so, the Politburo’s fiction was supposed to become reality.

China’s message to America regarding its artificial islands in the South China Sea was “just deal with it!” However, President Trump saw the light: that America needed to take action now or risk having to “deal with” a China militarily capable of challenging America at war later.

President Xi Jinping and the Politburo wouldn’t be compelled to abandon their imperialist ambitions in the South and East China Seas; they wouldn’t be deterred from further expansion and coercion in the region; and, they wouldn’t reduce their existing military footprint there no matter what diplomatic or economic penalty America thought to impose. They place their personal fortunes before China’s.

Xi and the Politburo had made up their minds, minds collectively suffering from an inferiority complex dating back to the Opium Wars which were lost by China’s Qing dynasty to Western powers in the mid-19th century as well as delusions of grandeur dating back to hundreds of years earlier when China truly was an imperial power and was paid tribute by vassal states (that is, before the British, followed by the Japanese, conquered China).

Xi wants to be emperor and the Politburo wants to be his court, their goal being to make their own dynastic fortunes. With the exception of the Mongol Dynasty (which was not Chinese anyway), Chinese imperialism has historically been about controlling trade – about making fortunes – not about making war. The Chinese Communist Party is corrupt. Emperor Xi and his court won’t make war with America because it would deprive them of their opportunity to make their fortunes. Chairman Mao must be “rolling over in his grave”.

Internal Chinese propaganda insists that China must be restored to its former, imperial greatness, and that America and the West are the enemy, that the Celestial Kingdom’s warriors reincarnated will “ride again.” This is merely a distraction created for its masses who are focused on their daily lives, not on their corrupt leaders.

Continuing to “just deal with it” means surrendering the East and South China Seas to Emperor Xi and his court and abdicating America’s ability to uphold its other interests and commitments in the Pacific. This is unthinkable to America, its allies, and all states that understand the need for a world where legal and moral principles dictate behavior. Hereafter, the mantra should be “the South China Sea is free!”


Christopher Beres received his master’s degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and is an expert on Asia.

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