Op-Ed by NATHAN INKS
Over the past several months, much attention has been paid to the negotiations and relations between North Korea and the United States; while this attention is certainly warranted, it has caused many Americans to ignore what is arguably a much more significant issue in East Asia—China’s increasing militarization of the South China Sea.
Many nations, including the United States, consider the area to be international waters, meaning that all nations have a right to fish in and navigate through the waters; however, some countries, including China, Tawain, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, claim various areas of the sea. For years China has been dredging, developing, and militarizing reefs, islands, and atolls in the South China Sea—in violation of international law—without any significant repercussions.
In recent years China has turned reefs and islets into artificial islands and turned those artificial islands into military bases, despite having expressly agreed not to militarize such islands. Although China has physical control of the islands, multiple countries have made territorial claims to various islands, and international tribunals have largely ruled against China with respect to its territorial claims.
Despite overwhelming international opposition to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, there has been little meaningful action from the United States. The Navy has conducted some “freedom of navigation” operations, sailing near the islands developed by China to reinforce the position that the islands are located in international waters; however, such operations have been the only extent to which the United States has significantly challenged China’s claims to the artificial islands. Freedom of navigation operations alone have proven to be ineffective.
France, Britain, and the United States have all engaged in such operations, yet China continues to defy international law. Unless the United States begins to meaningfully push back against China’s brazen violation of international treaties and arbitration rulings, China will continue to expand its island-building schemes.
Under President Obama, China went largely unchecked when it came to militarization of the South China Sea. Although President Trump has discussed China when it comes to tariffs and trade and increased freedom of navigation exercises, the current administration has not adequately addressed the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea.
Over the coming years, control of the South China Sea will become increasingly important. If significant action is not taken soon, China will be able to militarize enough artificial islands so that it would be able to exert control over the disputed area regardless of what the international community says.
In order to protect freedom of navigation, the interests of the United States, and the interests of the international community as a whole, the United States needs to place increased pressure on China to prevent this from happening.