The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How President Trump is helping Beijing win in the South China Sea

An airstrip, structures and buildings on China’s man-made Subi Reef in a chain of islands in the South China Sea in April 2017. (Bullitt Marquez/AP)

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of “The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century.” He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior adviser at Eurasia Group.

For years now, China has been at war against the United States in the South China Sea — only Washington didn’t notice until the process was well underway. The Chinese way of war, modeled after the philosopher of middle antiquity, Sun Tzu, is to win without ever having to fight. Thus, the Chinese have been proceeding by microsteps: reclaim an island here, build a runway there, install a missile battery in a third place, deploy an oil exploration rig temporarily in disputed waters, establish a governorate, and so on. Each step is designed to create a small fact, but without eliciting a military response from the other side, since the Chinese know they may be a generation away from matching the U.S. Navy and Air Force in fighting capability.

The latest chapter in this process occurred earlier this month, when a Chinese warship dangerously came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur, a guided missile destroyer, in the vicinity of the Gaven Reefs.

China is not a rogue state and its policy makes perfect sense, given its legitimate geopolitical aims. Beijing’s approach to the South China Sea is quite comparable to the United States’ approach to the Caribbean during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it sought to establish strategic dominance over its adjacent sea. Domination of the Caribbean gave the United States effective control over the Western Hemisphere and, thus, allowed it to pivotally affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere throughout the 20th century. Chinese domination of the South China Sea in the 21st century will do no less for China.

Effective control of the South China Sea will give China unfettered access to the wider Pacific, allow it to further soften up Taiwan — the northern boundary of the South China Sea — and, most important, make it a two-ocean naval power. Indeed, the South China Sea is the gateway to the Indian Ocean — the 21st century’s most critical body of water, which functions as the global energy interstate connecting the hydrocarbon fields of the Middle East with the middle-class conurbations of East Asia. China’s military actions in the South China Sea are inseparable from its commercial empire-building across the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal and the eastern Mediterranean.

From the Chinese viewpoint, though, it is the United States that is the aggressive hegemon. After all, the U.S. Navy sails its warships from North America to the faraway South China Sea, which, from China’s geographical reference point, is its home waters — just as the Caribbean Sea is to Americans. The very fact that the U.S. Coast Guard clusters ships in and around the Caribbean demonstrates how the United States, in a very real psychological sense, takes ownership of it. The Chinese, believing similarly, have coast guard vessels as well as a fishing fleet in the South China Sea region.

The United States must face up to an important fact: the western Pacific is no longer a unipolar American naval lake, as it was for decades after World War II. The return of China to the status of great power ensures a more complicated multipolar situation. The United States must make at least some room for Chinese air and naval power in the Indo-Pacific region. How much room is the key question. Remember that the United States’ principal allies bordering the South China Sea — Vietnam and the Philippines — have no choice but to get along with a much larger, economically dominant, and more proximate China. They require the United States as a balancer against China, not as an outright enemy of it. They know the United States has a robust military presence in Asia ultimately by choice — making its policies uncertain — whereby China is the region’s central organizing principle.

President Trump has communicated more uncertainty in the minds of our Asian allies than any previous U.S. leader of modern times. This might force them to conclude separate understandings with China. Such a process will be insidious, rarely admitted and almost never on the front pages. Yet, one day, we will wake up and realize that Asia has irrevocably changed.

Indeed, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s security strategy in the South China Sea is being undermined by Trump’s trade policies. Don’t believe for a moment that the United States can use trade as a lever against China in the South China Sea, where Beijing has a well-grounded, long-term grand strategy, as opposed to Trump’s zigzagging whims.

Unless the United States wants a shooting war in the South China Sea, its only defense against China’s policy of gradual encroachment is a U.S. system of free trade and democratic alliance-building that buttresses its military posture and counters China’s own imperial system. Power is not only military and economic, but moral. And by moral I do not, in this instance, mean humanitarian or moralistic. I mean something harder: the constancy of one’s word so that allies can depend upon you. Only with that will littoral states such as Vietnam and the Philippines — to say nothing of Taiwan and South Korea — see it in their own interests to keep a safe distance from China.

In sum, there is a direct contradiction between Trump’s aggressive economic nationalism and his administration’s commitment to defend the South China Sea. The South China Sea is not the United States’ home waters; it is China’s. Geography still matters. And because the United States is so far away, its only hope is to offer an uplifting regional vision that anchors its military one.