In a congressional hearing on Wednesday, former Director of National Intelligence and retired Navy admiral Dennis Blair told the panel that the United States should be prepared to use military force to oppose Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
“I think we need to have some specific lines and then encourage China to compromise on some of its objectives,” Blair, who headed the U.S. Pacific Command while in the Navy, said at the hearing.
The admiral’s recommendation came the day after a United Nations tribunal invalidated China’s claim of territorial rights to nearly all of the waters in the South China Sea. Other nations in the region — including the Philippines, who brought the action against China in 2013 — also claim sovereignty in that zone.
The U.S., citing the territorial dispute and security concerns raised by its allies in the region, have for months been sending warships into the South China Sea as a check against Chinese hostility.
Beijing, acutely aware of the military buildup off its coast, has publicly warned the U.S. it’s more than ready to defend against provocations.
“China hopes disputes can be resolved by talks,” an editorial in one of the country’s state-run newspapers said last week, “but it must be prepared for any military confrontation. This is common sense in international relations.”
Hanging above the whole affair is the fact that China, long before Tuesday’s ruling, had repeatedly stated it has no intention of abiding by the U.N.’s decision. And within hours after the tribunal’s verdict, China doubled down on that stance by raising the possibility that it would erect an “air defense identification zone” over the South China Sea.
“If our security is being threatened, of course we have the right to demarcate a zone,” Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said Wednesday at a briefing in Beijing. “We hope that other countries will not take this opportunity to threaten China and work with China to protect the peace and stability of the South China Sea, and not let it become the origin of a war.”
And war, it appears, is becoming increasingly likely by the day — with other countries in Southeast Asia beginning to take sides.
On Wednesday, Taiwan — whom Beijing considers to be territorially a part of China — sent a naval frigate to patrol the contested waters. The country’s claims of sovereignty in the region run parallel to China’s, and as such have similarly rejected the U.N.’s ruling. The deployment of the warship had been scheduled for Thursday, but was moved up a day after the tribunal handed down its verdict — a clear signal of a growing solidarity with China.
“The mission of this voyage is to display Taiwan people’s resolve in defending the national interest,” Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen said in a speech before the launching of the frigate.
On the other side of the equation, the Philippines — who since Tuesday’s ruling has been urging China to adhere to the U.N.’s proclamation — has for years been strengthening its military alliance with the United States.
In July of 2013, for instance, it was reported that the U.S. military was negotiating an agreement to increase the American presence in the Philippines. For its part, the media made no attempt at obfuscation.
From the New York Times:
The negotiations for increased military access come amid simmering tensions between the Philippines and China over areas in the South China Sea claimed by both countries and moves by the United States to ensure it retains influence in the region even as China’s grow.
That agreement was cemented in March of 2014.
By April of the following year, 6,000 troops had been deployed to the Philippines to participate in military exercises. In November, President Obama himself traveled to the country to negotiate the terms of further cooperation.
Then, last April — weeks after the announcement of the specific Filipino military bases where American personnel would be stationed — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter reiterated that deepening collaboration.
“There will be a regular, periodic presence here of American forces,” he stated at a news briefing in Manila. “The things that we’re doing here are part of a pattern that goes back decades. They’re at the invitation of an alliance partner.”
So, with the U.S. demanding compromise from a China who refuses to bow down — and forcing local powers to choose sides in the process — it seems the stage is being set for a potential military conflict in the South China Sea that could engulf the entire region.
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