Ever since Mao Zedong’s Communist army seized control of the Chinese mainland in 1949, the United States has sought to contain Chinese military power. In 1950, the U.S. intervened on the Korean Peninsula to prevent Kim Il Sung’s Beijing-backed army from overrunning South Korea. Between 1965 and 1969, the Johnson administration deployed over a half a million U.S. troops to Indochina to keep Ho Chi Minh’s Chinese-advised and Chinese-armed troops from conquering South Vietnam. In Korea, the U.S. stopped the spread of Communism below the 38th Parallel. And although the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam, American intervention there may have preserved the West’s position in Indonesia.
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States established an extensive military presence in the far western Pacific. U.S. air and naval bases extended southward along a chain of offshore islands from Japan to the South China Sea. These military strongholds effectively blocked China’s seaward expansion toward Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. In the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. Seventh Fleet repeatedly saved Taiwan from Beijing’s grasp. But the Seventh Fleet did more than deter the Chinese military colossus, American warships kept open the vital sea lanes linking Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to the raw materials of Southeast Asia and the oil fields of Arabia. North Asia in part “took-off” economically in the 1960s and 1970s because of its unimpeded market access to Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
China’s recent military moves in the South China Sea represent a bold attempt by President Xi Jinping to dismantle America’s decades-long containment policy. Xi understands that a Chinese salient in the South China Sea targets the vulnerable and exposed southwestern flank of America’s western Pacific defense line. Outflanking that defense line will enable China to threaten it and possibly someday in the future roll it up. Furthermore, with the South China Sea under Chinese control, Beijing will acquire incredible military and political leverage over America’s Asian allies because China will be in a position to disrupt the all-important trade between North Asia, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Western Europe.
Another reason for the Chinese push southward – control of the Paracels and Spratlys will provide Chinese military forces the capability to quickly pivot toward Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Borneo, and the Philippines. Such power projection capabilities will make it likely that those countries will fall within Beijing’s military and political orbit.
President Xi believes the United States and its allies will acquiesce to Chinese dominion over the South China Sea in exchange for continued access to China’s vast market. Xi and the heads of the People’s Liberation Army have determined that the West will buckle in the face of China’s belligerent rhetoric and aggressive military maneuvers rather than risk war and its concomitant economic turmoil. Simply put, Xi is gambling that corporate interests in the West will put their capital investments and future profitability in China over their need to contain Chinese military power. Xi Jinping may be correct in his assessment.
Australia has been timid in its response to China’s military thrust into the South China Sea. Recently, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – who was visiting Beijing during the row over the placement of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island – stated that Australia will not take sides in the ongoing territorial disputes roiling the region. She also did not condemn the Woody Island missile deployment. Facing pressure from the Labor Party to more forcefully challenge the Chinese, Prime Minister Turnbull has been oddly quiet about sending Australian ships into the South China Sea to uphold freedom of navigation. The fact that China accounts for 32% of Australia’s exports, and 23% of its imports, certainly explains Turnbull’s and Bishop’s reticence.
The United States has been only slightly less accommodating of China than Australia. The Obama administration has sent planes and ships into disputed areas; and Secretary of State Kerry’s statements after the Woody Island missile deployments were stronger than Bishop’s, but America’s words and deeds have not been forceful enough to stop the Chinese advance. Again, economics largely explains American timidity. China accounts for 7.7% of total U.S. exports, while Chinese goods and services make up 21.5% of all U.S. imports.
In 1947, the brilliant geo-strategist George Kennan wrote that totalitarian Communism behaved in a manner similar to water – it flowed into areas of least resistance. Kennan argued that America and its allies needed to stand firm against the spread of Communism because the Communists (acting like water) would only stop when they confronted an immovable object. America and Australia must be that immovable object in the South China Sea.