China’s seizure of an American underwater drone in international waters in the South China Sea has grabbed the headlines — for good reason. It’s not often that China commits an aggressive, provocative act like this, in full view of the U.S. naval vessel that launched the drone (although China has seized U.S military gear before, as in 2001 when a Navy surveillance aircraft was forced down on Hainan Island after it collided with a chicken-playing Chinese warplane).
But China’s thievery, and our humiliation in doing nothing about it except uttering feeble protests and politely waiting for them to return the drone, is only part of a much larger strategy China has been unveiling over the past seven years. In effect, China is annexing the entire South China Sea and eliminating any claim by other countries — including the United States to navigate its waters or fly through its airspace without China’s permission. It’s essentially an Anschluss of the South China Sea, analogous to Hitler’s takeover of Austria in 1938.
The centerpiece of this effort was also revealed last week, even though it was overshadowed by the drone story. Satellite pictures show that China has built a series of air strips and hardened structures for military aircraft on three islands in the contested Spratly Islands where just three years ago there were no islands at all: Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef. China’s on-going dredging operations to build its Great Wall of Sand on those sites have now created enough space for full military installations. Also, on four other nearby artificial island, China is putting antiaircraft batteries and close-in-weapons systems that can target and shoot down cruise missiles.
Those weapons can serve as the future centerpiece of a Chinese network of mobile surface-to-air missile systems installed in the Spratlys. In sum, China will probably be able to keep anyone China doesn’t like — particularly the United States — out of South China Sea airspace.
None of this comes as a surprise to those of us who have been sounding the alarm bells about China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the South China Sea. Nor is the Obama administration’s feeble and completely inadequate response to these moves a surprise. It’s an administration whose specialty has been letting the United States be humiliated, whether it’s by Iran, in the Hormuz Straits, where it grabbed our sailors and made a display of their surrender; or by Russia, in Crimea and Syria; or by China, in the South China Sea. After eight years, the whole world knows that Obama lacks the will to halt those powers that are bent on twisting the rules of the global order to their advantage.
In September, I warned that as Obama’s time in office winds down, Russia, China, and Iran will look for opportunities to seize what they can get before a new president takes office on January 20 — one who will take a very different approach to being bullied and humiliated.
That’s exactly what’s happened in the South China Sea Anschluss. China’s hope is that its military assets there will now make it impossible for anyone to propose de-militarizing the Spratlys — the first sensible move toward defusing the international tensions there — and gradually force its neighbors to accept as a fait accompli China’s claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea.
But China will be dealing with a very different customer in Donald Trump — and also in Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, who, as CEO of ExxonMobil, was willing to incur the wrath of China when he partnered with the Republic of Vietnam to develop its offshore natural reserves in the South China Sea. China had scared off other big energy companies from Vietnamese waters. Tillerson, however, doesn’t scare so easily — and neither does Donald Trump.
In 1938, Adolf Hitler was lucky that he had Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax to deal with — not Winston Churchill — when it came to his takeover of Austria. So far, China has been lucky as well, in dealing with an American president and secretary of state who were ready to trade away virtually anything to get China’s cooperation on climate change.
Beijing’s luck is about to run out. President-elect Trump suggested that the Chinese keep the drone they stole. They returned it, but perhaps they should have followed his advice. They may not get another chance to get something for free from the United States for a very long time.