China has launched its annual naval exercise in the South China Sea and featured one of its most advanced vessels, the missile destroyer Hefei. Along with the Hefei, five other guided-missile destroyers, a frigate, and a supply ship from its South Sea Fleet are taking part as China continues to assert its disputed claims in the region. In an exclusive interview with Spero News, John J. Tkacik Jr. warned that the little that the United States has done to stem China’s threat to the vital sea lanes that pass through the South China Sea is a growing concern that heretofore has been inadequately addressed by the Obama administration. President Barack Obama has pursued a “pivot” to Asia as the keystone of his foreign policy, which included negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but has seen a rise in the Chinese military threat to neighboring seas.
is Senior Fellow and Director of the FutureAsia project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center
, which offers advice to the U.S. government and corporations on international affairs and strategy. He is a retired Foreign Service Officer who has four decades of experience in China and Asia, having served for 24 years in the State Department. Tkacik served several tours in China and has given testimony to Congress on Chinese foreign policy.
When asked to identify the end game in sight for the South China Sea, Tkacik said of China, “What they want in the end, what they will establish, is full jurisdiction and control over the South China Sea under international law without any challenge.” As to current efforts by the United States and its allies, Tkacik predicted that China will indeed get its way in an area through which hundreds of millions of dollars of trade passes, including the petroleum so vital to the economies of Japan and South Korea. And once hegemony is established in the South China Sea, China can then turn its attention to the North, thus controlling the area around Japan as well.
“But I’m not sure that the policies being pursued, either in Washington or among the ASEAN claimants is going to mitigate that,” said Tkacik. If the United States does not resist the Chinese, the ASEAN claimants will have to accept China’s hegemony as a fait accompli, said Tkacik. “If the United States is not in a position to exert a forceful push-back, then it becomes a fait accompli for China, at which point China will basically control all maritime commerce through the South China Sea, and will restrict if not prohibit all naval, all military transit of the South China Sea.”
Making the circumstances even more grave for the United States and its allies is that Chinese hegemony over the region also endangers civil aviation routes. He averred, “This is a major challenge for U.S. foreign policy and I don’t know if the Obama administration has faced up to it just yet. I think that for the last five years, or six years since 2010 that the Obama administration simply can’t believe that that’s what the Chinese are doing.”
Tkacik recalled that China has claimed the South China Sea since at least the late 1940s, including areas some 2000 miles from its shore to Indonesia and the Philippines. “The Communists have basically re-stated these claims since the late 1960s,” said Tkacik. The territory claimed by China includes the Spratly Islands: a claim that is disputed by the Philippines and which has seen an increasing number of confrontations between the two in recent years. Additionally, China has conducted a program of dredging up sand to create islands at uninhabited shoals and atolls, where it has since built naval stations and air bases. Recently, China emplaced surface-to-air missile batteries on Paracel Island, which is another disputed territory.
Satellite view of South China Sea and environs. Encircled are the islands disputed by China and The Phillipines
According to the official Xinhua News Agency, during the current naval exercises, Chinese vessels will be joined by forces based in the Spratly and Paracel islands, where China has embarked on massive island-building to expand and reinforce reefs and shoals it controls in the disputed region. Last week, China featured popular singer of popular tunes, Song Zuying, to serenade troops on its man-made islands in the Spratly Islands. Among the anthems she sang was "Ode to the South Sea Defenders," whose lyrics speak of "troops of stout men with guns in their hands who battle the wind and fight the waves to guard the nation's door." Photos of the event showed that China has built lighthouses, harbors, and buildings at Fiery Cross Reef. Also evident were the Chinese navy’s huge Type 071 amphibious dock ships, which are capable of carrying four helicopters and as many as 800 troops.
Most recently, Tkacik said, China has moved into the Scarborough Shoal, which is but 200 miles from Subic Bay, where the United States had a strategically important naval base for decades in the Philippines. Scarborough is also within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. “It’s here that a real test of will is going to probably make itself felt,” said Tkacik.
Since the two countries retain treaty obligations, the Philippines has been calling for increased attention by the United States to China’s claims to its maritime assets. A recent overflight and refueling of U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II “Wart Hog” ground attack jets, said Tkacik, may be a sign that the U.S. “may be serious about assisting the Philippines.”
Besides Russia, several Asian countries have lined up behind China in its dispute with the Philippines, which in its juridical form has reached the United Nations Court on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) at The Hague. These include Laos and Cambodia, while Burma has also expressed sympathy. Others initially tried to stay out of the dispute, but are now siding with the Philippines and the U.S.: Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. As for China, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ouyang Yujing recently declared: "The case brought by the Philippines is nothing but a political farce under the cloak of law. ... It is a grave threat to regional peace and stability." China has promised not to impede navigation should it impose sovereignty over the area.
China is digging in its heels. Soon, the international court is expected to rule against China, which appears to firmly reject jurisdiction even though it is a signatory of the same treaties concerning the law of the sea as is the Philippines and the U.S. Hong Lei, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, said recently, "Those who expect that the arbitration could compel China to yield or make it an accomplished fact are doomed to be disillusioned. The arbitration is illegal and invalid whatever it will be. China will reject and will never acknowledge it."
Possible SAM batteries on Woody Island in the Paracels
“China is rock-firm in safeguarding the international rule of law and the integrity and sanctity of UNCLOS,” Hong told journalists.
Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin spoke on May 6 in Shanghai after the USS Blue Ridge docked at the quay. Despite China’s decision to block the entry of the USS John C Stennis into the harbor at Hong Kong, Vice Admiral Joseph AuCoin sought to dispel rumors of increased tensions between the U.S. and China. China will participate in a multi-national naval exercise, along with the U.S., Australia, the Philippines, and other nations. The annual RIMPAC exercise is billed as an anti-terrorism and anti-piracy operation. Speaking to reporters, "But the very fact that we're on this pier, that our two navies, our two countries, don't let that minor hurdle get in the way of our relationships. Our, the relationship between our two countries is much too important for a port visit to get in the way of that." AuCoin is the overall commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.
Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, was less sanguine in his comments about China. "We are seeing Chinese fishing trawlers provoking the United States Navy, carrying out sovereign acts, but just over the horizon is the PLA," said Zukunft, referring to the People's Liberation Army. "So our biggest concern is about a miscalculation. But their coast guard has not been transparent in terms of what their intent is," he said at a recent discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. Zukunft said that the U.S. is cooperating with China to produce a code of conduct for armed planned encounters at sea "so they won't take these actions against our Navy and other forces as well." Zukunft concluded, "Our sense is that China does not want to be a global hegemon, but they clearly want to be recognized as the regional leader in this area."
Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said at the same forum that the Navy's freedom of navigation operations — sailing warships close to Chinese man-made islands — are working. Their aim is to advocate for an international set of rules that ensures the free flow of goods and services in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, he said.
According to his website
, China Business Intelligence, John Tkacik has experience in China, Mongolia, and Taiwan. He was Chief of China Analysis in the Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research before retiring in 1994. He was vice president for government relations for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco International and was a consultant to RJR-Nabisco China from 1996 to 1999. He later joined the Heritage Foundation in 2001 where he was a senior research fellow in Asian studies.There he wrote press commentaries and research studies, and also edited two books: "Reshaping the Taiwan Strait" and "Rethinking One China." He is fluent in Chinese. He has degrees from Harvard and Georgetown universities.
John J. Tkacik Jr.