In The Wall Street Journal, Niharika Mandhana suggests that “The U.S. missed the moment to hold back China’s buildup in part because it was focused on collaborating with Beijing on global issues such as North Korea and Iran, and was preoccupied by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Now, she suggests that China has effectively boxed the U.S. out of the South China Sea. She writes:
In early February, a Philippine coast guard vessel approached a small outpost in the South China Sea when it was hit by green laser beams that temporarily blinded its crew. The source was a Chinese coast guard ship, which Philippine authorities said approached dangerously close.
A few weeks earlier, the U.S. military accused a Chinese fighter pilot of another unsafe action over the waterway—flying within 20 feet of the nose of a U.S. Air Force aircraft.
Before that came a November incident involving a Philippine boat that was towing debris from a Chinese rocket launch. China’s coast guard deployed an inflatable boat to cut the tow line and retrieve the object, said Philippine officials.
Beijing is becoming the dominant force in the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes each year, a position it has advanced step-by-step over the past decade. With incremental moves that stay below the threshold of provoking conflict, China has gradually changed both the geography and the balance of power in the area.
The disputed sea is ringed by China, Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations, but Beijing claims nearly all of it. It has turned reefs into artificial islands, then into military bases, with missiles, radar systems and air strips that are a problem for the U.S. Navy. It has built a large coast guard that among other things harasses offshore oil-and-gas operations of Southeast Asian nations, and a fishing militia that swarms the rich fishing waters, lingering for days.
The U.S. missed the moment to hold back China’s buildup in part because it was focused on collaborating with Beijing on global issues such as North Korea and Iran, and was preoccupied by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. China also stated outright in 2015 that it didn’t intend to militarize the South China Sea.
China’s broader challenge to America’s long pre-eminence across the Indo-Pacific region threatens U.S. allies such as Japan, and puts the vast majority of the world’s advanced semiconductors, which are produced in Taiwan, at risk. China’s buildup in the South China Sea especially threatens the Philippines, a U.S. ally.
Former U.S. and Southeast Asian officials and security analysts warn that China’s gains in the waters are now so entrenched that, short of military conflict, they are unlikely to be reversed.
“They have such a reach now into the South China Sea with sea power and air power” they could obstruct or interfere with international trade, said retired Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., who long was a senior naval officer in the region and led the U.S. Pacific Command from 2015 to 2018. The U.S. would have to decide if it would go to war with China if it carried out such actions, he said.
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