President Trump is helping Beijing win in the South China Sea


For years now, China has been at war against the United States in the South China Sea, except Washington didn’t notice until the process was well underway. The Chinese way of war — modeled after the philosopher of middle antiquity, Sun Tzu — is to win without ever having to fight.

Thus the Chinese have been proceeding by microsteps: reclaim an island here, build a runway there, install a missile battery in a third place, deploy an oil-exploration rig temporarily in disputed waters, establish a governorate and so on. Each step is designed to create a small fact, but without eliciting a military response from the other side, since the Chinese know they may be a generation away from matching the U.S. Navy and Air Force in fighting capability.

The latest chapter in this process occurred earlier this month, when a Chinese warship dangerously came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur, a guided-missile destroyer, in the vicinity of the Gaven Reefs.

China is not a rogue state and its policy makes perfect sense, given its legitimate geopolitical aims. Beijing’s approach to the South China Sea is quite comparable to the United States’ approach to the Caribbean during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it sought to establish strategic dominance over its adjacent sea. Domination of the Caribbean gave the U.S. effective control over the Western Hemisphere, allowing it to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere throughout the 20th century. Chinese domination of the South China Sea in the 21st century will do no less for China.

Effective control of the South China Sea will give China unfettered access to the wider Pacific, permit it to further soften up Taiwan — the northern boundary of the South China Sea — and, most important, make it a two-ocean naval power. Indeed, the South China Sea is the gateway to the Indian Ocean, the 21st century’s most critical body of water, which functions as the global energy interstate connecting the hydrocarbon fields of the Middle East with the middle-class conurbations of East Asia. China’s military actions in the South China Sea are inseparable from its commercial empire-building across the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal and the eastern Mediterranean.