Silence is golden
After the Communist government was established in China after the end of the Second World War, the United States faced two urgent tasks. One was containing the Soviet Union and China and the other was boosting Japan’s economy and turning it into a U.S. logistics base in Asia. In the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles and George Kennan established a U.S.-led “hub-and-spokes” system in Asia-Pacific region. In it, the United States was the hub, with its bilateral security treaties and military bases agreements with Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand used as spokes. Based on this new order, the East Asian region enjoyed prosperity in stability — despite two major wars in Korea and Vietnam — over the past seven decades.
The latest tensions between the United States and China in the Southeast China Sea are China’s direct challenge to the system built by Acheson, Dulles and Kennan. The size of the waters is 12 times larger than the Korean Peninsula, and seven countries are near the waters, including Taiwan. In this vast sea, there are up to 3,000 islets, rocks, coral reefs, sandy plains and beaches. Oil and gas are waiting to be extracted at 3,000 meters under the sea, depths at which Chinese submarines can pass undetected by U.S. surveillance vessels. It is not only a rich fisheries zone, but also a major transportation route where more than $5 trillion in goods pass through. Over 90 percent of the petroleum Korea and Japan import from the Middle East go through this waters.
China shifted its naval strategy in 1985 from “near-coast defense” to “far-sea defense.” Beijing drew nine segment lines that surround the Southeast China Sea in a U-shape and claimed territorial rights over the islets, rocks, sandy plains and coral reefs that fall inside. It continued to reclaim the sea by building one artificial island after another. China claims territorial rights to the waters stretching out 12 nautical miles from those artificial islets, which has triggered strong protests from the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. The two largest islands in the sea — Spratly and Paracel — are particularly disputed, and Uncle Sam checks China’s ongoing construction by siding with the Philippines and Vietnam.
There are three separate disputes over the troubled sea: the freedom of economic development of underwater resources, strategic freedom and the freedom of navigation. The United States is pressuring Korea to speak up on the issue because of strategic reasons. But Korea cannot — and must not — side with anyone in this territorial dispute. It has no power to intervene in the strategic battle between America and China over the struggle to either break or maintain the status quo. Korea is in no position to do so, either. At the defense ministerial talks in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 4, Defense Minister Han Min-koo stated that the freedom of navigation in and over the sea should be guaranteed. That’s the practical limit of our action. No matter how hard Washington pressures, we must not go any further.
China will surely continue to build artificial islands, and to build runways for its military aircraft on them. The United States objects to China’s exclusive territorial claims over the sea. After attending the Kuala Lumpur talks, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter moved to Sabah, eastern Malaysia, and flew on an MV-22 Osprey to board the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt operating in the Southeast China Sea. This was more than a show of force targeting China. It was a performance for the American people.
China argues that it will not use the sea for military purposes. But the U.S. government will no doubt face pressures from Congress and the public if China continues to build artificial islands on the sensitive waters. That’s why it is too optimistic to believe that there won’t be a clash, albeit accidental, between the United States and China to escalate tensions in the region.
Although it has drawn the nine segment lines, China refused to say what they mean. That is why the United States — and none of the Southeast Asian countries — can challenge it. Beijing will likely try to control the sea inside the nine lines, while attempting to stop U.S. Navy vessels in the waters from leading up to the first line linking Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, northern Philippines and Borneo in the Kurile chain of islands. The United States won’t allow China’s defense of the first islands line based on its concept of “far-sea defense.” It is the most dangerous when China attempts to move forward to the first islands line, beyond the nine segment lines. China is also lukewarm in signing a code of conduct with members of the Asean over the Southeast China Sea. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently visited Vietnam, which confronts against China over the territorial right over Paracel. The Southeast China Sea will be home to the diplomatic battle between Washington and Beijing for the foreseeable future. In such a time, silence is gold for Korea, sandwiched between the two superpowers.