China extends troubling reach

This image with notations provided by ImageSat International N.V., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, shows satellite images of Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. A U.S. official confirmed that China has placed a surface-to-air missile system on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, but it is unclear whether this is a short-term deployment or something intended to be more long-lasting. (ImageSat International N.V. via AP)

Satellite photography appears to show the recent deployment of Chinese ground-to-air missiles on Woody Island, a land spit in the Paracel Islands occupied by China but claimed by Vietnam. This deployment, if verified, threatens international air space and is a further encroachment by China into international waters used by many nations. Secretary of State John Kerry has promised to have “a very serious conversation” with the Chinese government about this development, which is seen in Washington as a contradiction of Chinese promises not to militarize its recent push to establish outposts on contested islands in the South China Sea.

President Barack Obama has ordered the U.S. Navy to protest China’s efforts to control the South China Sea as it sails ships and flies aircraft in what every nation but China recognizes are international waters and airspace.

Asked by The Washington Post about the apparent military deployment on Woody Island, the admiral in charge of the U.S. Pacific fleet, Harry Harris Jr., said it was a concern. But he added, “We will conduct more, and more complex, freedom-of-navigation operations as time goes on in the South China Sea. We have no intention of stopping.”

The South China Sea, bordered by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia, is a major sea communications lane for an important part of the world’s foreign trade, including oil, gas and raw materials for Japan and Korea and all shipments between China and the rest of the world. It would be no exaggeration to say it is a lynchpin of the world economy.

China claims to own it, a contention very much contested by other nations bordering the sea, and by China’s obligations under the Law of the Sea Treaty. China also rejects its obligations under the Law of the Sea Treaty to submit its territorial claims contested by the Philippines to arbitration by an international court, saying the issue should be settled bilaterally.

Last September, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised not to unilaterally militarize the more southerly Spratly Islands, another contested archipelago where China has been building airfields. He made no promise about the Paracels. But Secretary Kerry said last week that the non-militarization pledge should apply to all contested territory in the South China Sea.

China’s decision to increase international tension in the South China Sea puts the U.S. Navy in a stressful position. Navy leaders have already warned that they cannot regularly deploy carrier task forces to all the world’s increasingly diverse troubled areas. Thus, U.S. officials might have to choose between whether to go to the Persian Gulf or the South China Sea at any given time.

China’s rising ambitions in East Asia threaten long-time U.S. interests and alliances and the world order on which the international community has come to depend.

They also shine an ominous light on the perils of diluted American military strength. The situation sends a dangerous message to those nations that don’t share our interests.