When President Obama announced a pivot toward Asia he saw opportunity, but recent events indicate other more ominous consequences. Since WWII the United States has been the dominant world power in the region but we have been lazy and neglectful. Other interests have drawn our attention and no significant challenges have arisen. This is changing. China is a rising power, both commercially and militarily, and it sees itself as the rightful hegemon for its region.
A small but important conflict highlights this issue. The Spratly Islands comprise a scattering of more than 750 islets, atolls, cays, and barely visible reefs in the South China Sea. Their ownership has been in dispute for years, with claims being laid by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and most significantly by China. None of these countries are nearby and the Spratlys have no indigenous inhabitants. This archipelago has rich fishing grounds and substantial oil and gas resources, but for China the dispute is as much an issue of national pride and regional control as a commercial interest.
The danger that this simmering conflict creates is illustrated by our response to recent Chinese efforts to establish a permanent presence on the Spratlys. China has undertaken a massive project to build some of its reefs into a large artificial island with facilities that our intelligence analysts see as militarily significant. These include a large harbor, piers, helipads, buildings and an airfield capable of servicing any planes in the Chinese fleet. Moreover, China now claims airspace control over the entire vicinity, something we view as interference with international rules for freedom of travel.
We have deployed surface vessels to the region and have conducted surveillance flights to gather information and to assert our presence. These have led to tense clashes, including a near collision of an American EP-3 spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter. Just days ago, an overflight by another spy plane was met with strong radio challenges from Chinese ground and naval forces, with barely concealed underlying threats. A nearby commercial jet on a normal flight path intercepted the radio exchange with some alarm, but was reassured that it could continue unimpeded. How long do you suppose this can continue without untoward consequences?
A military historian interviewed about these events commented that this is a familiar situation. What is building is a classical clash between a dominant power and a rising power for local hegemony. He has researched such clashes that occur periodically over the centuries and found that about 70% of the time they lead to war. In only 30% of the cases are peaceful accommodations reached. I don’t like those odds.