War in the South China Sea?

10/02/2011 As the late Ambassador James Lilley was fond of pointing out, “The Chinese telegraph their punches”—if you listen to what they are saying, they will tell you what they are going to do

A few weeks ago I wrote about the scare I had when the Chinese navy intercepted an Indian vessel leaving Vietnam on the high seas, claiming it was violating Chinese territorial waters.Now we all have much more cause for concern.

An important article calling for war with Vietnam and the Philippines was published 27 September in the Global Times, a tabloid format Party newspaper owned by the highest official Chinese government mouthpiece, the People’s Daily. It remained the lead story at the newspaper’s website for almost two days and is still posted as I write (29 September). Yet the Washington Times appears to be the only Western newspaper to have picked it up.One wonders whether official Washington is even aware of this remarkable and chilling manifesto. Ignorance would be bad enough, but willfully downplaying it would be culpable. For as the late Ambassador James Lilley was fond of pointing out, “The Chinese telegraph their punches”—if you listen to what they are saying, they will tell you what they are going to do.


The South China Sea is a crossroads of many nations and a potential area of significant confrontation. Credit for Map: Bigstock

Picking up such warnings is not always easy. The indication that China would intervene in Korea was conveyed by an Indian diplomat who was not treated seriously because of his left wing connections. In this case, however, the call for war is by a member of the Chinese policy elite, published in both Chinese and English, in a popular down-market paper that is a regular site for the launching of trial balloons, statements of policy, and so forth.

When an official Chinese media outlet publishes a piece calling for war now I pay attention. To be sure, this may be bluster, or it may be intended for psychological effect. But on the other hand, if China wanted to warn the world of upcoming use of force, how else would they do it?

The article argues that Vietnam and the Philippines have been the two noisiest critics of China’s recent assertion of undeniable sovereignty over the 634,000 square miles of the South China Sea. Therefore, according to ancient precepts of statecraft and war, they should be dealt with first, and now. If they are slapped down, no one else will join the fray. If they are not, dissatisfaction may spread and China be faced with her greatest nightmare—a countervailing coalition.

China has already made clear her intention to control the South China Sea. This has alarmed many of her neighbors, who are beginning now to reconstitute their militaries and to develop ententes with one another and with other powers (Vietnam with India and the United States, the Philippines with Japan) in a way that means that as time passes, it will become ever more difficult for China to enforce her claims by military action.

She has to move now, while her neighbors are still shocked by her claims and considering how to react to them, not after they have the ships, missiles, mines, and so forth in place that will make China’s use of military force operationally difficult.

The article points out that now is the time to act because of the “thousand” oil rigs in the South China Sea, not one is Chinese. A war in which rigs are set alight and burn for months will not harm Chinese interests. None of the airfields in the region are Chinese, which means whatever is damaged belongs to somebody else. A rapid and decisive use of force, moreover, will probably stop opposition to China’s action in its tracks. Psychological dominance will be established by military means.

Most tellingly, the Chinese author—pen name Long Dao—argues that the United States will not become involved, because she is mired down in the Middle East and unable to act on another front.

Time is not on China’s side, in other words, and for the moment the U.S. is distracted, which may change. The stars are in alignment, the tides are favorable, this – now – is the time to move.

I believe that at a minimum this article lays out a viewpoint that has wide support within the Chinese establishment. Extensive claims have been made in the last twelve months. Unless they are nailed down, argument could go on forever and China never take possession.

Furthermore, conditions are such that a somewhat convincing story can be told about why such action now would be decisive and limited. It would get the sea under Chinese control, but it would not escalate or continue for months and years.

This article, then, at least represents a viewpoint within China.

It may represent a view on which China is preparing to act. Such a clear call for action, made so prominently, has at least the approval of the government. Beijing moreover believes that she now possesses the military force to defeat, say, Vietnam. She may not have that in a few years, as Vietnam takes delivery of advanced Russian submarines and other weapons.

From a policy point of view, China’s military is a wasting asset. It has already frightened China’s neighbors. As they move, its relative advantage over them is diminished.

If the international community becomes involved, things could become very messy.

So one can examine the warning from many angles and spin out many scenarios about what it means, war included.

I am frankly appalled and not a little frightened that the article seems not to have made it into our leading media. I have received no email alert from the New York Times, no notice of a special session from the Council on Foreign Relations—nothing at all.

The Chinese will assume that President Obama himself has read the article and discussed it with his advisers—and that official silence indicates we agree with it, or don’t want to get involved, or don’t care.

We cannot expect more from Beijing than to give warning as clear as this that hostilities may be in the offing.

We ought to expect—nay, demand—of our government that it take such warnings dead seriously. It may be that this is someone speaking out of order.

On the other hand it could be China telegraphing a punch that, if delivered, will throw all of Asia into violent chaos of a sort not seen since Korea, if then.

Dr. Waldron oversees IASC’s Asia and Strategy Programs. He trained as an Asian specialist at Harvard (A.B. 1971, Ph.D. 1981) is the Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania where he also heads the Indo-US Forum and is member of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response

First published by International Assessment and Strategy Center www.StrategyCenter.net
on September 30th, 2011

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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