The looming presence of the huge aircraft carrier the USS John C Stennis as it passed through the South China Sea passage was a massive declaration of intent by Washington of its determination to face down Beijing as they tussle for regional influence.
There is no more formidable war-fighting machine in the world and the Chinese Navy is years from having anything comparable. So, the question has to be asked: just what core United States interests are really under threat that they need to be answered with a physical response? So far the only real changes in the area are the construction of runways and the temporary deployment of short-range missiles, which had been there before and attracted little attention. The runways are certainly an unnecessary provocation but so far they have not been put to use except by a civilian airliner. One wonders what Washington’s response will be if the Chinese Navy starts landing its state-of-the art Sukhoi jets on those runways. There are not many levels of escalation to be traversed before things get very serious indeed.
So far the exchanges between the bridges of the Chinese and American vessels involved have all been entirely professional. Most of the time they are probably not within sight of each other and there is no question of their coming into contact, as has been the case between Chinese fishing vessels and the Japanese Coast Guard, and the South Atlantic clash with the Argentine Navy.
So why the sudden upping of the ante? The answer appears to lie in the appointment of Admiral Harry Harris as commander of the US Navy Pacific Fleet. The admiral seems to be trying to make up for lost time to overcome the effects of the policies of his predecessor, who is now seen by the hierarchy as having been overly conciliatory towards Beijing, even putting the environment on his agenda when a more robust military line would have been more appropriate.
‘If two nuclear powerhouses engage in a competition to test each other’s willpower, the whole world will face the repercussions,’ warned Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The American admiral is in no doubt as to China’s continuing strategy: ‘With regard to what China is doing differently, over the past few years what they’ve done is reclaimed almost 3,000 acres of bases—military bases, in my opinion—in the South China Sea.’
The Japan-born admiral is clearly seen by both sides as having an agenda that suits Washington’s purpose, putting China on notice that more choppy seas are ahead if they continue to work to expand their facilities in the region. The US has been calling in aid from India and Australia as well as smaller fish such as the Philippines—after a brief sojourn in the disputed passage, the Stennis anchored off the latter—but that only brought a wry rebuke from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. They well know that none of the above has any particular interest in raising the temperature with Beijing at this point without a serious reason to do so.
With the US having played a high-value card, it is now up to Beijing to respond if they so wish. It is hard to see that they have any choice if face is not to be lost.
If they were to move to put hardware into the islands, it would be difficult to know how the US could do anything less, creating the conditions for an unintended clash. At this point the points at issue between the two sides do not represent anything truly serious, not least because both have a vital interest in keeping the waterway open to world trade, worth about $5 trillion annually, which passes through its confines.
Both sides need to take a step back and evaluate where this is going. The naval men on the high seas all appear to be cool-headed and in control of the situation but one wonders whether the same can said of their senior officers and the politicians. Both are in need of proving a point and in a world with an economy teetering on the brink, this is neither the time nor the place to be doing it.
Surely this is the time to start looking for some mediation before things move too far, too fast. The UN surely wouldn’t carry much weight but an amalgam of other powers—India included—might do the trick.