On Tuesday, the threat of war with China heightened when the United States made its third incursion into Chinese-claimed waters in eight months, sending the guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence sailing within the 12-nautical-mile territorial zone surrounding Chinese-held Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea under the pretext of defending the principle of “freedom of navigation.”
Tuesday’s intentionally provocative action follows two similar incursions into Chinese-claimed waters by U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea, one in October near Subi Reef and another in January into the waters around Triton Island in the Paracel Island chain. The first two provocations were met with sharp diplomatic protestations on the part of the Chinese government. This most recent intrusion saw an escalation of China’s reaction, as its military scrambled at least two J-11 fighter jets and ordered three warships to the area. The jets issued warnings to the U.S. destroyer to leave Chinese territory or risk engagement.
Fiery Cross Reef, part of the Spratly Island chain, features land recently reclaimed from the sea and military facilities that include a port and a 3,300-meter airfield, China’s southernmost airfield. The reef is regularly used by Chinese military aircraft.
“These excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” said U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bill Urban, “in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise.”
Certainly China is pursuing a policy of extending its power and influence, reflecting the interests of the country’s ruling oligarchy. The U.S.’s claim that its naval incursions into Chinese-controlled waters are disinterested, however, ring hollow. With its 2011 “pivot to Asia,” the Obama administration has been the face of U.S. imperialism’s attempts to encircle and intimidate China, the rising superpower of the world economy. And as James Cogan of the World Socialist Web Site has written, the meaning of “freedom of navigation, to the United States, amounts to “the assertion of U.S. imperialism that it has the right to send its military forces anywhere it chooses, at any time, in Chinese-claimed waters.”
The U.S. has made clear its intentions toward China. It has built and continues to strengthen military ties with Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, and its reckless provocations in the South China Sea are aimed at fueling territorial disputes between those countries and China. This month will see an Asian tour by Obama, for which the incursion of the William P. Lawrence into Chinese-claimed waters can be seen as a keynote. With an increasingly bellicose government in Australia, a remilitarizing and increasingly nationalist Japan, and a new fascistic nationalist president in the Philippines in Rodrigo Duterte, the pivot to Asia has succeeded in creating a tinder box with catastrophic potential.
“Brinkmanship” was a term used during the Cold War to denote dangerous actions taken by the U.S. and the Soviet Union as they attempted to gain strategic advantages over each other. In other words, it meant gambling with the lives of millions. Not since the Cold War have we hovered so close to world war. Those who control U.S. military policy give every appearance that they view a globally dominant China as en existential threat to their own interests. How else can we explain their recklessness in the South China Sea? The U.S. has already risked nuclear war by sending its warships into Chinese waters. Our fate, it seems, is now in the hands of the Chinese oligarchs. Will they accede to U.S. limits upon China’s growth, or will they take up the gauntlet thrown down by the U.S. oligarchs and agree to a war between two nuclear powers?