China's Expansion in the South China Sea: A Return to Great Power Politics

06/12/2015 03:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

While the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the looming threat of Russian intervention in Ukraine have understandably captured the attention of most U.S. foreign policy observers, recent events underscore that the most important long-term challenge confronting the United States remains the rise of China. Specifically, China's activity in the South China Sea is troubling, and could have long-lasting implications for peace and security in the Western Pacific.

Just in the past year, China has engaged in a major campaign to alter the geography near the Spratly Islands by building a series of installations, including airstrips and refueling facilities, on existing reefs and small man-made islands. These "land reclamation" projects have taken place in the disputed territory also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. The unilateral nature of this activity coupled with Beijing's unwillingness to engage in substantive negotiations on the future of the South China Sea has sparked fears in China's smaller neighbors.

While Beijing has ostensibly committed to peacefully resolve the territorial disputes in the region, it has consistently refused to engage in multilateral initiatives within an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework. Most view this as a transparent attempt to bring as much leverage to bear in one-on-one negotiations with its smaller neighbors, and little progress has been made since China agreed to a Code of Conduct in 2002. In the interim, China has asserted its claims to sovereignty over the disputed reefs and islands in increasingly provocative ways, initially utilizing civilian fishing and coast guard vessels to create a clear presence to the more recent dredging and land reclamation efforts that are now altering the geography of the area.

The United States has maintained an official policy of not taking sides in the various territorial questions, but this policy may become untenable. China's unwillingness to seriously engage other claimants and its efforts to alter the geographic status quo raise serious questions about its commitment to peaceful resolutions of these disputes. More importantly, China's behavior threatens the maintenance of free navigation and transit through the South China Sea, which is a clear, long-term American national security interest and vitally important to regional allies and global economic stability.

Approximately 50% of world shipping passes through the South China Sea, much of it Persian Gulf oil destined for Japan, China, South Korea, and other states in the region. Given China's own acute need for natural resources and energy, it is difficult to understand how Beijing could misperceive or not understand the importance other states place on freedom of navigation in the area. While it has focused more on dismissing claims and attempting to intimidate its neighbors, Beijing has seemingly failed to see how its assurances of safe passage in the future may be lost amidst the images of its artificial island development campaign.

Most importantly, the alarming news that China had positioned artillery on one of its new islands near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Chain seriously undermines the credibility of apologists who argue that China is merely exercising its sovereign rights. Such arguments are short-sighted in two major ways. First, simply claiming the entirety of the South China is dubious in terms of history and precedent. Common sense would introduce a measure of skepticism over territorial claims that are roughly a thousand miles away from China's shores. But those claims can and should be negotiated and discussed and fairly adjudicated. What apologists seem to miss is that China's provocative actions are speaking far louder than any statements in support of reconciliation or peaceful dispute resolution.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the completely unilateral and forceful nature of its actions seriously undermine any credibility of Chinese claims of limited objectives and willingness to abide by shared norms or agreements in the future. How and why should anyone take seriously Beijing's claims to maintain access through the South China Sea given the actions of the past two years? What is to keep Beijing from announcing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over its man-made possessions in the South China Sea, therefore threatening free shipping and aviation? Some Chinese military leaders have already broached this possibilty in response to U.S. objections to China's behavior. Only last month, Chinese naval forces warned a U.S. Navy surveillance plane to leave the area near the man-made islands, an ominous glimpse into the future.

Since assuming power, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has spoken of China and the United States developing a "new kind of great power politics" that avoids the damaging and costly patterns of competition and conflict that have marked great power relations through history. This logically follows from Beijing's decade long campaign to reassure skeptical neighbors and other concerned states and dampen fears of China's growth. Unfortunately, China's actions in the South China Sea, coupled with its persistent unwillingness to constructively engage its smaller neighbors, seem all too familiar. They reflect the behavior of traditional rising powers seeking to revise the existing regional status quo in their favor. In doing so, these revisionist powers typically encounter resistance, spur opposing coalitions, and increase the likelihood of diplomatic crises, conflict and war. Given its recent behavior, Beijing seems intent on following this risky and dangerous path.