New Tone Of US-China Relations
Holding a Tiger by the Tail
The Chinese Navy seized an American underwater drone Thursday in the South China Sea. About 100 miles off the coast of the Philippines, the USNS Bowditch was collecting two of the submersibles when a trailing Chinese ship swooped in and picked up one of the drones. No response has been received to the United States request for the return of its property through formal diplomatic channels. According to comments made by military officials to CNN, the drone was only measuring ocean conditions, but ships like the Bowditch are often trailed in the South China Sea because of concerns over intelligence gathering operations.
A quick refresher on the South China Sea dispute:
Tensions in the South China Sea have mirrored the rise in global temperatures. At the heart of the dispute is the question of who has claim to what parts of the South China Sea. International maritime law states that countries control 12 miles out from their coastline and have exclusive rights to waters 200 miles out (these are nautical miles for those precise people). Islands are where the rules get tricky.
Piling earth on top of existing reefs, China has created 7 new islets in the last few years. By controlling this new “land,” China has significantly expanded there area of the South China Sea, it claims, to just about the entire sea. Not content with merely building, China has also been fortifying these islands. Airplane hangers and other armaments show just how serious China is taking its new territorial claims. CSIS, an American Think-Tank was the first to publish information of the fortification and maintains an excellent website on the South China Sea.
China is not the only nation jostling for position in the South China Sea. Vietnam has been building its own artificial islands. Indonesia has forcibly seized several Chinese fishing boats fishing in the contested economic zones. The Philippines actually took China to court and won, the international tribunal severely reprimanding China for its South China Sea activities. Additionally Japan has stepped up its Naval presence in the region. All these countries are pushing back, but without a central actor to rally around the individual nations involved have not been able to stand against Chinese expansion. Enter the United States.
In a move of calculated ineptitude or blundering brilliance, one of President-Elect Trump’s notable acts since the election has been to take a call from the Taiwanese president breaking years of established precedent. Coupled with the anti-China statements expressed during the campaign, President-Elect Trump has fired a warning shot across China’s bow that he will not tolerate the current status quo. Renewed attention has been focused on the South China Sea since the phone call, but President-Elect Trump did not create this situation alone.
Continuing the long tradition of arming allies, President Obama’s administration finalized the sale of $1.83 Billion in weapons to Taiwan on December 14th, a significant but smaller sale than the $5.3 Billion weapons deal back in 2011. In addition President Obama’s stated goal the last year has been to move 60% of US naval capabilities into the South China Sea. Seizing a US drone is only the latest incident in a long building confrontation over the South China Sea. Subic Bay, the naval base out of which the US ships involved in this dispute, are operating was reopened in 2012 as one of many new agreements with allies in the area. US focus has been steadily shifting to the South China Sea for some time.
The South China Sea is rapidly becoming one of the most militarized areas in the world. The US has largely left China to its own devices, but the military buildup in the South China Sea seems to signal that disengagement is at an end. What effects will the actions of the incoming President have on such a tense situation?