Confrontation in South China Sea

Confrontation in South China Sea

One of the greatest threats to world peace is the US Defence Secretary

The US Navy Times headline of 5 November summed up Washington’s policy as regards the South China Sea by recording that «Pentagon chief takes jab at China with aircraft carrier stop».

This interesting aspect of America’s official policy about China was one result of the visit by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an enormous aircraft carrier in the South China Sea where, ten days previously, on 27 October, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen had been ordered to try to provoke China to react to a deliberate, coat-trailing confrontational incursion into territorial waters claimed by China. 

Carter was in Asia at the time and as part of his country’s demonstration of world-wide military presence and power decided to emphasise that dominance by holding a press conference on board one of its largest strike ships. The USS Theodore Roosevelt is nuclear-powered and very likely nuclear-armed (the Pentagon refuses to comment on such things) and is the most important vessel in Carrier Strike Group Twelve (CSG-12) which has 44 F-18 strike fighters, 5 Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft and countless attack helicopters. In company with the carrier there are normally the USS Normandy, a guided missile cruiser; two guided missile destroyers (Forrest Sherman and Winston S Churchill); and another destroyer, the Farragut. Then over the horizon there is, as IHS Jane’s records «an Amphibious Ready Group embarked with a marine expeditionary unit» about which «the US Navy has not ruled out the possibility that the ARG may be deployed for South China Sea operations».

This enormous force «includes the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD 23) and the Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock landing ship USS Rushmore (LSD 47) ... Embarked with the ARG is the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which includes the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 161 (Reinforced)».

There are some 5,000 US Marines afloat in the region of the South China Sea in (and above and under) which the US strike capability is colossal. The number of nuclear-armed and conventional attack submarines in the waters surrounding China is kept secret, but bear in mind that the US Navy has scores of them.

Make no mistake: the new and growing tension in the South China Sea has been intentionally promoted and fuelled by Washington. On November 7 President Xi Jinping made it clear that «the freedom of navigation and overflight in South China Sea neither has been nor will be hindered». He stressed that «China needs unimpeded passage in the body of water more than any other country does».

So what is Washington’s problem? 

There is complete freedom of navigation to pass through the South China Sea which, as Beijing stresses, is most important for China’s trade and thus its economic progress. An enormous number of ships, including vital oil tankers, sail through to Chinese ports, from which China exports raw materials and manufactured goods to Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The PRC is not going to take any action that would cripple its own commerce.

It is therefore disturbing that Washington – in the person of the Pentagon’s Mr Carter – states that «there is a lot of concern about Chinese behaviour out here». When Carter was asked about his visit to the South China Sea he replied that «If it’s being noted today in a special way, it’s because of the tension in this part of the world, mostly arising from disputes over land features in the South China Sea, and most of the activity over the last year being perpetrated by China».

Then Carter observed that «the US military has helped to maintain peace and stability in the region for 70 years».  

Peace for seventy years? He omits to mention that the first US troops were deployed to wage war in Vietnam in the mid-1950s, and that in 1959 the first two (of an eventual 58,220) members of the US military lost their lives in that catastrophic bloodbath. His memory is also selective about the years of hideous conflict in which «from 1964 to 1973 the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings were part of the US Secret War..». 

Mr Carter’s understanding of ‘peace and stability’ is totally inconsistent with the facts – as is his sabre-rattling stance over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. His assertion that the United States helped maintain peace and stability in Asia for 70 years is bizarre, and it is ironic that it was delivered when he was on a nuclear aircraft carrier sailing only a few miles east of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – the countries that Washington bombed mercilessly for so many awful years of war. 

The intellectual Carter being flown away from the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea

President Obama, the man who selected Carter to be Defence Secretary, set the scene for Washington’s confrontational global approach by telling CBS Television in June that China is certainly «big and powerful» and «it may be that some of their claims are legitimate... But they shouldn’t just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way».

Obama did not specify which people are being pushed out of the way by China, any more than his belligerent Defence Secretary explained his proclamation that China’s international success is in some fashion a «challenge» to the United States. On 7 November Carter gave a speech at the annual Reagan National Defence Forum where he «explained how Russia and China challenge the United States’ capacity to innovate and change». His weird argument included the intriguing assertion that «China is a rising power, and growing more ambitious in its objectives and capabilities».

Of course China is ambitious about its future – just as is Russia, about which Carter displayed paranoia in his pronouncement that «I reject the notion that Russia should be afforded a ‘sphere of influence’». 

Washington does not realise how much resentment is created throughout the world by continual declaration and emphasis that only the US can be permitted an all-embracing ‘sphere of influence.’ Obama’s declaration that America is «the one indispensable nation in world affairs» is regarded by the world’s more sophisticated citizens as being immature gas-bagging or even harmless conceit – but he and the Pentagon are deadly serious, and their policy of military antagonism is intended to counter any nation that has the temerity to grow «more ambitious in its objectives and capabilities».

To underscore Washington’s obsession with challenging China by flaunting its military might, two B-52 bombers were sent to fly over the South China Sea on the night of November 8-9. Exactly what this childish display was supposed to achieve is not clear, but one thing is certain: irrespective of its futility, it will be remembered by China. 

Insulting and provoking nations that are ambitious in their objectives and capabilities might seem terribly clever and bold to such as the intellectually arrogant Carter, but Washington would be wise to bear in mind that all countries have a breaking point. Confronting China and Russia might play well in Washington’s halls of power, but in realpolitik terms the sabre-rattlers are playing a very dangerous game.

Tags: Asia-Pacific  China  US 

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