By Michael Durao
June 18th, 2011

While the PRC has kept its pawns Qaddafi and al-Assad in power in Africa and the Middle East, the success of its continued imperial endeavors have thankfully been slightly muted by ongoing territorial disputes with its neighbors.  Once again, tensions over the Spratly Islands and South China Sea have flared up, in this instance following PLAN warships engaging Vietnamese fishing vessels near the archipelago.  Claimed by the PRC, ROC, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia, both China and Taiwan have the most dubious claims to the islands, based entirely on insignificant historical exploration of the islands backed up by falsified archaeological findings.  These islands are rather far from the Chinese mainland, though, and neither the region’s relatively insignificant oil reserves nor any need for fishing rights seem to warrant the PRC’s obsession with asserting dominance over it, despite their being among the government’s publicly-stated rationales for claiming them. 
Rather than taking the PRC’s propaganda at face value, however, one must realize the geostrategic significance the Spratlys play in Chinese defensive naval strategy as well as their ambitions for global power projection through a blue water navy.  The PRC’s location is not particularly ideal to a sea-faring empire chiefly because it is surrounded by islands claimed by rival neighbors.  The most significant of these are the Ryukyu and Senkaku Islands between Japan and Taiwan, recognized by the JMSDF and ROC Navy as essential to containing PLAN forces to the Yellow and East China Seas and cutting of easy access to the Pacific.  The Spratlys, meanwhile, ensure passage through the Straits of Malacca, giving PLAN fleets short routes to the Indian Ocean that can effectively be used to militarily assist and assert power over their proxies in Africa and Central Asia, a function that will become even more important to PLAN strategy when the Shi Lang/ex-Varyag becomes operational.
US backing of Vietnamese claims demonstrates at least some recognition in Obama’s State Department that Chinese imperialism is becoming increasingly problematic for American interests globally, and highlights where US policy must go from here.  Supporting Vietnam sets a precedent for a more assertive stance in support of China’s regional rivals, most notably India.  This comes at a point in time when Sino-Russian relations appear to be improving to some degree, together expressing discontent over Western intervention in North Africa and the Middle East.  Luckily, any semblance of friendship between Russia and China is purely pragmatic, but allowing for any common ground between the two nations bodes dangerously for the West when its ability to maintain a sphere of influence is rapidly diminishing as the need to settle domestic financial issues becomes paramount.  However, the current situation also provides an opportunity to hamper Chinese expansionism indirectly.

Economically and militarily important ties also exist between Russia and China’s enemies, with India undoubtedly being Russia’s most strategically significant ally in Asia.  Keeping this in mind, it is essential that the US emboldens Vietnam and other Asian countries not only to assert their claims over the South China Sea, but also to more explicitly support India, especially as collusion between Pakistan and China (including their egregious stealth-empennage-for-JF-17s deal last month) continues to undermine American interests.  Increased tensions between Russian allies and China will force a a deterioration in Sino-Russian relations, one that will not only slow the PLAN’s growth into an effective blue water navy, but also deny the PRC a valuable diplomatic ally.

Michael Durao is an Beowulf Associate who's analytical expertise is focused on aerospace platforms.  His particular concentration lies in the analysis of the capabilities and proliferation of Eastern air defense and air-to-air systems, defense acquisition reform, and the evolving paradigms of 21st Century warfighting.

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