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South China Sea
China Could Be Building a “Strategic Strait”

Looking at China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, CNBC asks, “Is Beijing making a new ‘strategic strait’?”

“The logical conclusion drawn from China’s adding … islands in the southern part of the South China Sea with military-sized runways, substantial port facilities, radar platforms and space to accommodate military forces is that China’s objective is to dominate the waters of the South China Sea at will,” Peter Dutton, professor and director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, said in a February speech at London’s Chatham House.

“Building the islands is therefore, in my view, a significant strategic event,” he said. “They leave the potential for the South China Sea to become a Chinese strait, rather than an open component of the global maritime commons.”

Speaking with CNBC, Dutton explained that there are few circumstances where China would want to restrict commercial movement in the area, but “the real problem” is that Beijing could readily exercise that capacity in times of crisis or conflict.

Whatever Beijing’s goals, it’s clear that they’re moving full-speed ahead toward achieving them. Yesterday, China turned on a lighthouse on the Subi Reef, literally sending a signal about its intentions to control the area. China’s aggression has created some recent backlash: Vietnam has been complaining about China’s placement of an oil rig, and the the Philippines is preparing for a verdict in the case it brought against China at the Hague and conducting joint exercises with the United States Navy. So far, however, nothing is slowing Beijing down.

If Beijing can block trade or innocent military passage in the South China Sea, that would be a problem in the event of a serious conflict, but it also would raise the likelihood of a serious conflict developing. With these concerns in mind, U.S. policy has been to maintain freedom of naval navigation for decades—freedom not just for American tankers, but for Greek tankers and Japanese tankers and also Chinese tankers. Continuing this policy remains an essential building block for world peace.

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  • Blackbeard

    China’s action in the SCS illustrate the importance of credibility, something Obama has never and will never understand. How does a powerful country such as the U.S. deter another powerful country, say China, from a destabilizing course of action without an actual war? You do that by signaling displeasure and hinting at actions the opposing power would find painful. Of course for this sort of thing to work the opposing power has to believe you might actually follow through.

    This is where Obama’s pathetic performance in Iran, Ukraine, Syria, etc., hurt. Obama, and therefore the U.S., have no credibility and therefore China doesn’t believe we’ll do anything. Our choice then is either to act much more aggressively than we would like, with all the attendant risks we would prefer to avoid, or do nothing. Doing nothing, of course, has a whole different and equally unpalatable set of risks.

    Obama, truly a transformational president.

    • CapitalHawk

      I think Obama just needs to clarify what his “red lines” are. That way the Chinese will know they can go only so far, and no further, without serious consequences!!!!!

      • Jim__L

        Obama should put more exclamation marks in his speeches. That will convince people how serious he is!!!!!!!!!

  • Anthony

    Is Beijing making a new strategic strait? Well, it may depend on who is doing the interpreting. :In the fall of 2013, Chinese President Xi Jingping put forward the strategic framework of building the Silk Road Economic Belt and a counterpart 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, collectively referred to in abbreviated form in Chinese parlance as the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.” A question is (in line with OBOR) are Beijing’s (CCP’s) South China Sea initiatives just part and parcel of a rising China reinforcing its global ascension in its neighborhood. That is, are post’s queries part of Xi’s peaceful development intention while simultaneously expressing positive relationship with both China’s neighbors and United States (Xi’s Chinese Dream)? csis.org/files/publication/160328_Johnson_PresidentXiJinping_Web.pdf

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The problem for China is that it is extremely vulnerable to a Strategic Blockade of its ports (China is the largest importer in the world, and 40% of their economy is dependent on foreign trade. Think battle of the bulge on a national scale.). Building airbases in the South China Sea isn’t going to help them, especially since unlike an aircraft carrier, they can’t move, and everyone knows exactly where they are.
    While you generally don’t think of islands as being sinkable, these are tiny unstable islands, and like a sand castle hit by a shock, a few hundred deep penetrating SDB’s (guided bombs) simultaneously detonated would shiver these islands beneath the sea. One B-2 (stealth bomber) can carry 216 Small Diameter Bombs (320 in a pinch with refueling), which are designed to penetrate runways, hardened aircraft shelters, and deep under ground, and can be precisely positioned and timed for a synergistic shock-wave building detonation. If these islands were attacked when a Typhoon passed over the South China Sea (a common occurrence), when the Typhoon passed by the Chinese would find their islands had sunk beneath the waves like the Mythical Atlantis.
    Anyway, who do they think they are going to trade with after they’ve enraged all their neighbors, and can’t protect their shipping beyond the South China Sea? I happen to think this is all about the Chinese leadership setting up an opportunity to wave the Bloody Shirt and generate public support by blaming the Foreign Devils for Chinese Government incompetence in managing the economy. The real Chinese economic numbers must be horrific, and the Chinese leadership terrified they will all be hung from the lampposts.

  • Anthony

    A current reality is the United States and China are both indispensable pillars of world order. That is, contemporary China has regained the stature by which it was known in the centuries of its most far reaching influence.

    And an essential building block of world peace requires “a subtle balance of restraint, force, and legitimacy. In Asia (South China Sea and beyond), it must combine a balance of power with a concept of partnership. A purely military definition of the balance will shade into confrontation. A purely psychological approach (China’s way) to partnership will raise fears of hegemony.” So, the United States and China must recognize their common interest in the Pacific region – wise statesmanship is required all around.

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