For the past two decades, the South China Sea has been recognized as a geopolitical flashpoint that has the potential to destabilize regional security in a vital part of the world. On February 16, China escalated tensions by deploying two batteries of eight surface-to-air (SAM) missiles on Woody Island, which is part of the highly contest Paracel Island Chain in the South China Sea. China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is concerning, but should the U.S. really be all that surprised?
The latest provocation in the South China Sea is one of many that the White House views as an emerging Chinese pattern to assert its dominance in a region where about 30% of the world's trade passes. The Chinese navy has expanded its fleet and simultaneously its claim on territory throughout the region. According to Realpolitik, China will continue to maximize its power gap “so that no powerful state in Asia has the wherewithal to threaten it.” Naturally, this will be problematic for the United States, which has dominated the Pacific since Douglas MacArthur famously proclaimed, “I’ll be back.”
The rise of China has inevitably been a cause of fretfulness in Washington. More specifically, China’s provocative efforts to undermine U.S. hegemony in the Pacific is viewed as a “Chinese philosophical challenge to the current notion that America is the nation that best deserves to run the business of the the Pacific Ocean, as it has done for the century past.” Indeed, China is seemingly on a quest for power in the Pacific. Thus, as China continues to rise, we should expect Beijing to try to push the United States out of the region. The U.S. should not acquiesce.
To combat China’s unilateral attempts to control the South China Sea, the United States has commenced a “freedom of navigation operation” that would demonstrate to China that the U.S. has the right to go anywhere International Law allows it. On February 3, the U.S. challenged China by sailing the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur near the disputed islands. The SAM deployment on Woody Island two weeks later was seemingly a response to this U.S. action.
That China should be positing its own Monroe Doctrine for the Asian-Pacific region should come as no surprise to the United States. Yet, Chinese assertiveness threatens to engulf the region in a conflict that would threaten the world economy. The United States and its southeast Asian allies should continue to assert its freedom to operate within this global hub of trade without regard to Chinese ambitions.