The South China Sea is hotting up as Beijing ups the ante on its long-term aim to establish effective and exclusive control. China is planning to build an artificial island on Fiery Cross Reef complete with military air strip and a 5000 tonne sea-berth. Beijing’s strategic aims would appear to be fivefold : to create a military capability on the disputed Spratly Islands that uses force to ends the sovereignty dispute with the Philippines and Vietnam, to control the oil and gas resources believed to lie under the Spratly Islands, to reinforce China’s self-proclaimed Air Defence Identification Zone ; to extend Beijing’s self-proclaimed Exclusive Economic Zone ; and in time to tip the strategic balance against the US, Japan and South Korea.
The Fiery Cross or Crann Tara is aptly-named. A Fiery Cross was a medieval Scottish (they get everywhere) device used to summon the Clans in the event of danger. It was a half-burnt wooden cross soaked in blood and used to warn clans of the revenge by fire and blood that awaited those that did not answer the summons. I am surprised Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond has not invoked the Crann Tara in his Little Scotland mission to destroy the UK. He has invoked just about every other bit of Braveheart bravado.
The planned Chinese base on Fiery Cross Reef would extend a UNESCO-commissioned Chinese-built observation post that already exists. The artificial island would be at least twice the size of the US military base on the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and cover some 90 square kilometres or over 50 square miles.
What are the wider strategic implications ? 2014 has seen a distinct upturn in Beijing’s determination to extend its power writ across the South China Sea. If the construction of the artificial island goes ahead it will show a flagrant disregard for international law not dissimilar to that of Russia in Ukraine. If successful China could well seek to build a string of such islands to create an offensive military capability designed in time to shut the Americans and its allies out of huge areas of both the South and East China seas.
Beijing is clearly determined to ensure China is the dominant strategic power in East and possibly South Asia. However, unlike Moscow Beijing is clearly prepared to build up its power patiently trading on the political and military weakness of neighbouring states, the increasing political and military overstretch of the United States and the strategic denial of European leaders who refuse to realise that the world is on the brink of a new age of ‘might is right’ hyper-competition.
This bigger strategic picture was missing from last week’s NATO Wales Summit. The basic assumption behind the new first-responder Multinational Spearhead Force was that the Americans will always be able to act like the US Seventh Cavalry in those western movies of old. In the event of threat the US would ride over the horizon to save Eastern European ‘homesteaders’ from Russian aggression.
However, implicit in the emerging and de facto Beijing-Moscow Axis is an agreement to offer mutual support by complicating America’s strategic calculus during times of stress by staging diversionary crises that stretch US forces to breaking point. The use of Moscow-style ‘ambiguous warfare’ could well be at the forefront of such a strategy so successful has it been in dividing Europeans. A reality self-evident yesterday when the EU could not agree to implement beefed-up sanctions. With the US cutting its armed forces by 2020 more than the entire European defence budget the prospect of a strategically-paralysed US is now very real.
Therefore, NATO allies need to understand the nature of the new twenty-first century transatlantic contract implicit in Wales. The Americans will guarantee Europe’s defence but only if Europeans help ease the pressure on the United States and its forces. That means Europeans able and willing to join the Americans in future ‘broad coalitions’ not just against the likes of Islamic State but in wider state-on-state conflicts. Indeed, NATO only makes sense from an American strategic perspective if it is part of a US-led world-wide web of democracies that can and is able to work together politically, strategically and militarily. That is why Australia is such an important part of America’s ‘broad coalition’ because the presence of Canberra establishes the precedent for NATO as a mechanism for the generation of globally-capable coalitions. It is also why Japan is changing its constitution to allow for the possibility of offensive military operations and South Korea is keen to get involved with NATO.
Taken together Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and Beijing‘s ambitions in the South China Sea mark the start of a new age of global challenge to the once Western-led order. There were some signs at the NATO Summit that some of the leaders might have understood this. However, only a very few of them did (at best) whilst the rest still seem lost in the regionalisation/integration fairy-tale that is the EU. It would of course be nice to think that good old-fashioned Machtpolitik is a thing of the past. That is after all what most Europeans and their leaders want to believe. It is not.
Therefore, it is time to set the Fiery Cross aloft and remind the Western clans that there are still those in the world who really do believe might is right and are prepared to use it if needs be to achieve their ambitions. All of which makes the NATO ‘agreement’ to possibly increase defence spending a little bit and possibly within a decade seem what it is - absurd.