What Lies in the South China Sea
China’s claims rely on historical fiction and face an imminent challenge from the U.S. Navy.By David Feith, WSJ
Oct. 13, 2015 1:22 p.m. ET
The U.S. and China are headed for a showdown at sea. U.S. officials say that within days the U.S. military will conduct “freedom of navigation” patrols to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea’s strategic Spratly archipelago. That area lies more than 700 miles off China’s coast, between Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, but China’s government has warned that it is “seriously concerned” about U.S. action and “will absolutely not permit any country to infringe on China’s territorial waters.”
Now’s a good time, then, to clarify what’s going on. The U.S. and its Asian partners are trying to curb a Chinese campaign to conquer one of the world’s most vital international waterways. The South China Sea is home to rich natural resources and half of all global shipborne trade: some $5 trillion a year in oil, food, iPhones and more. By asserting “indisputable sovereignty” over its nearly 1.35 million square miles, including vast swaths of sea belonging to its neighbors, Beijing threatens to hold hostage—and to wage war over—the economic heart of East Asia.
The U.S. position is to support open seas and the peaceful resolution of disputes, while taking no stance on who owns what in disputed waters. Yet that’s not because China’s claims are as valid as those of its neighbors. On the contrary, China’s claims are dubious, often laughably so. That Beijing backs them aggressively—sending oil rigs, fishing boats and maritime militia into its neighbors’ exclusive economic zones, transforming rocks and reefs into artificial islands for military bases—only underscores the importance of deterring further such revisionism.
“Islands in the South China Sea since ancient times are China’s territory,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping said last month at the White House, giving President Obama and the Washington press corps some typical Beijing spin. The real story is otherwise.