- By BC Cook
IN chess, a good strategy is to move your pieces into position to strike but not to reveal your strength until you lower the boom. Lead your opponent into complacency then attack when there is nothing he can do.
Two years ago this column raised alarm about China’s ongoing construction in the South China Sea. Not that I was the only one, of course. But looking back very few people seemed concerned. I took that to mean, not that people didn’t care, but that many figured there was nothing to be done. No one was in the mood for a superpower confrontation in 2014.
At that time China sent dredging ships to the area of the Spratly Islands, an internationally contested region, and began constructing artificial islands. Even though China said the purpose of the islands was peaceful it soon became clear that they were building air bases and naval facilities.
When I pointed this out two years ago my column was met with criticism and derision by my Chinese friends and even officials of the Chinese government. Don’t be silly, they said. China would not deliberately provoke a crisis in the region, I was told. It is reckless for me to make such accusations without hard evidence, they said. Some urged me to retract my column and replace it with an apology to the Chinese government.
Back then there was one island approaching completion. Today there are ten, all of which have air or naval capabilities. The Chinese presence in the region now is massive. They could easily bring in hundreds of warplanes and dozens of ships and saturate the area with military might.
The Chinese strategy is clear. By moving slowly but deliberately, the Chinese have steadily increased their presence in the contested region until they cannot be put out without a major confrontation. Since there was no major change from week to week, no trigger moment, leaders in the Philippines and the United States have not been faced with a crisis, a time for decision.
The world community has collectively said, “Let’s keep an eye on this and see where it goes.” But what else has the world community shown? Back in the summer the United Nations ruled that China had no legal right to build in the South China Sea, that their claim on the area was very thin. China kept building and the U.N. did nothing.
In the Philippines, President Duterte took office and instead of standing up to Chinese aggression, he declared to the world that he was joining China and Russia in a collective snub against the West. ‘What problem in the South China Sea? We are friends!’
It is not likely that the United States will act against China without the Philippines. What would be the point? Anyway, the U.S. is going through a leadership change at the moment. Outgoing President Obama has no authority and it will take some time before incoming President Trump is ready to put the gloves on. This only increases the time China has to solidify its position in the South China Sea. By the time the West has all the pieces in place for a solid front against them, the Chinese will be in firm control. Checkmate.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He travels the Pacific but currently resides on the mainland U.S.