Gordon G. Chang
“China’s goal in the South China Sea appears to be a gradual extension of its sovereignty to a maritime space the size of India.”
Last Wednesday, the USS Hopper, an Arleigh Burke–class missile destroyer, sailed within twelve nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, a few rocks in the northern portion of the South China Sea.
We would not have known about the sail-by if we were relying on the Pentagon. Beijing announced the event and then made threats. The Chinese, we have to conclude, are itching for a confrontation.
Therefore, strategic Scarborough Shoal, a mere 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon and guarding Manila and Subic bays, could be the hinge on which America’s relations with China swings.
Think of Scarborough as perhaps this century’s Sudetenland. In the spring of 2012, Chinese and Philippine vessels sailed in close proximity of contested Scarborough. Washington brokered an agreement between Beijing and Manila for both sides to withdraw their craft. Only the Philippines did so, leaving China in control of the feature, which had long been thought to be part of the Philippines even though it was inside Beijing’s infamous “nine-dash line.”
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Washington, unfortunately, did not enforce the agreement it had arranged, undoubtedly under the belief it could thereby avoid confrontation with China. The White House’s inaction just made the problem bigger, however. By doing nothing, the Obama administration empowered the most belligerent elements in the Chinese capital by showing everyone else there that duplicity—and aggression—worked.
An emboldened Beijing then ramped up pressure on Second Thomas Shoal, where China employed Scarborough-like tactics by swarming the area with vessels, and the Senkakus, eight specks under Japanese administration in the East China Sea.