The division of China with two governments may have contributed to the low level attention paid to the islands by both governments. However, the ROC government has governed the Taiping Island (part of the Spratly Islands) where an airport has been built, a garrison is stationed and tourists are welcome whereas the PRC government has maintained control of the Paracel Islands, where the Woody Island, one of the largest islands, has an airport, hospital, school and bank serving about 2000 residents. The neighboring countries in the South China Sea, principally Vietnam and the Philippines have made claims to these islands and made attempts to make landfills to enlarge the squatted island or docking stationary vessel to facilitate occupation. In response to these foreign claims, the PRC government has increased its own well-engineered landfill and infrastructure constructions in the Spratly Islands. Although the Chinese island construction efforts on her own islands are perfectly legal, but it raised concern and envy from the neighboring countries, especially from the Philippines and Vietnam.
Ever since the U.S. initiated her “Pivot to Asia Pacific” policy, one can see the increasing diplomatic maneuver the U.S. is engaging with Asia Pacific nations. The elevation of the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty permitting Japan to make first attack on behalf of its ally and encouraging Japan to revise its Pacifist constitution and to strengthen its military power is the first deed. The finalizing of the decade long negotiation of a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) governing trade and investment between 11 signed members excluding China is the second deed. The increased military exercises conducted in the Pacific involving the U.S., Japan and other Asian nation and the development of several bilateral defense treaties between either Japan or the U.S. and another AP nation is the third deed.
Most recently, the U.S. has plunged into the South China Sea dispute arena even though the U.S. is not a claimer in the South China Sea. The U.S. by raising the flag of freedom of navigation, entered into the South China Sea by sending spy planes and naval ships into the region to challenge the 12 nautical mile security zone sanctioned by the United Nation Convention Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). This is the fourth deed of the U.S. that has raised the temperature of the AP hot spot.
As a US citizen observing the above deeds, one cannot help but wonder what does the U.S. want in the South China Sea or in the Asia Pacific? A recent article, entitled American Aggression Against China written by Christopher Black, an international criminal lawyer in Toronto, and published in Neon Eastern Outlook on February 7, 2016, had given a thorough analysis of the U.S. actions in the South China Sea. He concluded that the U.S., never ratified UNCLOS but recognized the international law on 12 nautical miles security zone, was acting purely as an aggressor to provoke China. Mr. Black pointed out the sovereignty timeline regarding the islands and interpreted the legal significance of UNCLOS laws applicable to the islands; China was within her rights to do what she was doing. On the other hand, Black raised the question why is the U.S. adopting a double standard and practicing hypocrisy regarding UNCLOS and freedom of navigation. There was no maritime issue (freedom of passage) in the South China Sea other than the force entry by US navy vessel breaking into the 12 mi security zone without permission. This deliberate aggression (and bragging) is making the U.S. looking like a gangster nation. Black’s article has prompted me to ask why is the U.S. doing this? What does the U.S. want from the South China Sea?
More than half of China’s import and export goods sail through the South China Sea; it is to China’s interest that the sea lanes are open to everyone without obstacles. In fact, South China Sea is safe and has never had any incidence such as pirates. So there is no need for a maritime cop patrolling, never mind having more military vessels coming from afar to crisscross those sea lanes in the South China Sea. So what does the U.S. really want from the South China Sea then? As I understand, when the U.S. Congress blocked the ratification of UNCLOS (proposed by President Bush in 2007 and promoted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Joint Chief of Staff, Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2009), the objection was that UNCLOS would restrict the U.S. freedom in deep-sea mining. Could it be that the U.S. had discovered some valuable minerals underneath those islands in the South China Sea? Even so, China had declared welcome to partnership with other nations to explore energy resources in the South China Sea, wouldn’t a partnership negotiation a better approach than sending battle ships to the region?
Another unthinkable scenario is that the U.S. simply does not want to see China rise peacefully. What the U.S. is doing is using South China Sea as an excuse to provoke China into a confrontation. If that is what the U.S. wants out of the South China Sea, then we should not be surprised that China will fortify her occupied islands with defense weaponry. If this were the U.S. strategy, I believe more Americans would oppose such a strategy simply because the U.S. citizens could not see the justification for such a war. The Vietnam War in the 70’s was initially justified under an ideology confrontation. But eventually Americans opposed it when they realized that the war was not in the best interest of the U.S. In the South China Sea situation, a war over a few rocky small islands could not be in the best interest of the U.S. Based on the above discussions, I do not know an answer to the title question and I will challenge anyone to come up with a good answer backed by rational thinking and justice.