According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Beijing is again asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The latest row involves Scarborough Shoal, a speck of coral and sand over 500 miles south of the Chinese mainland. A few days ago, the Chinese sent a small flotilla of vessels to the reef. We don’t know why the vessels are there; but based on past Chinese actions in the region, it is possible to speculate about Beijing’s motives.
Presently, The Hague is deliberating whether Scarborough Shoal belongs to China or the Philippines. A decision in the case could come in a matter of days. The Chinese, likely fearing a ruling in favor of the Philippines, have sent the ships to the reef to uphold Beijing’s claims to the small isle irrespective of the position taken by The Hague.
There is another possible reason for the presence of the Chinese flotilla in the waters off Scarborough Shoal. The Chinese plan on developing the reef into a military outpost, similar to the one on Woody Island in the Paracels.
If China rejects The Hague’s ruling, it means Beijing is unwilling to resolve its territorial disputes with its neighbors through international arbitration or negotiation. Such an outcome will convince the countries on China’s southern periphery that Beijing’s advance into the South China Sea cannot be stopped short of war. In consequence, military tensions amongst the claimants to the South China Sea will likely rise dramatically in the weeks ahead.
Scarborough Shoal is strategically important because if it becomes a military outpost, the Chinese will be in a position to monitor, and someday in the future interdict, the eastern approaches to the South China Sea. More specifically, a Chinese military position there will give Beijing the ability to challenge U.S. military forces sallying forth from the Allied naval and air base at Subic Bay, situated 170 miles to the east.
There is no reason for the Chinese to develop Scarborough Shoal other than to militarily challenge the U.S. presence in the South China Sea. The Obama administration would be remiss if it allowed Beijing to build a base atop the shoal, since China’s purpose for such a base will be to eventually wrest the South China Sea from the United States and its allies, with the ultimate objective of weakening the U.S.’s long-established defensive positions in Southeast Asia and the Far Western Pacific.
What is the United States to do? The U.S.’s freedom of navigation exercises across the South China Sea have failed to stop the Chinese push southward. It’s obvious that sending planes and ships close to Chinese-claimed reefs will not deter the government of President Xi Jinping.
If the Chinese ignore The Hague’s ruling and begin building a base on Scarborough Shoal, the United States must take forceful action. The Obama administration should bring the simmering South China Sea crisis to a head sooner rather than later. How? The U.S. Navy should enforce The Hague’s ruling by establishing a blockade and no-fly zone around Scarborough Shoal. These actions would prevent Chinese resupply of its ships now in the area and require those ships to withdraw. Then, after the Chinese depart the area, the U.S. will need to assist the Filipinos in maintaining their sovereignty over the reef, possibly through a continued military presence.
These actions are not without risk. The Chinese might respond violently to a U.S. naval blockade and no-fly zone. But what is the alternative? Current U.S. policy is not working. And the longer the U.S. and its allies dither and placate, the more the military balance in the South China Sea tips in Beijing’s favor. Better to confront Beijing now while the military balance is overwhelmingly in the U.S.’s favor. Furthermore, if The Hague determines Scarborough Shoal belongs to the Philippines, the U.S. will be enforcing international law by restricting Chinese access to the atoll.