Blogs > There's No There There > Are We Going to Go to War Over the Spratly Islands?

Nov 12, 2015

Are We Going to Go to War Over the Spratly Islands?

tags: George W. Bush,China,Murray Polner,Teddy Roosevelt,Ash Carter,Spratly Islands

Combat ship USS Fort Worth patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands

This post is by Murray Polner,  a blogger, writer and HNN Book Department editor.

It was all reminiscent of that historic American milestone in 2004 when President George W. Bush, wearing an Air Force suit that made him resemble a genuine combat veteran, stood proudly on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner triumphantly heralding another “Mission Accomplished” for the world’s “indispensible” nation.

So too in November 2015 when Ashton (Ash) Carter, our Defense Secretary, was on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt warning the Chinese that the US means business if they dare interfere with freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and our domination of the region now and into the future.

The US had recently dispatched a guided missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese islet in the Spratly Archipelago, some of whose barren and rocky islets are claimed by the Chinese but also by other Southeastern Asian nations who expect the US military and its “boots on the ground” to fight and if necessary die on their behalf in the event of war.

“Teddy Roosevelt’s presence there and our visit is a symbol of our commitment to our rebalance [to Asia] and the importance of the Asia-Pacific to the United States,” Carter declared, somehow overlooking that the real Teddy loved war, I mean he LOVED it, that is until his son died in WWI.

 Still, given the oil and natural gas reserves in the area plus the extensive presence of commercial shipping and fishing, President Obama added, “The United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law involves.” Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen didn’t question Obama’s judgment, but he wisely advised prudence. “It does no good for the region if there are incidents.”

Certainly, the defense of freedom of navigation is vital but sending in well-armed warships repeatedly, as the US says it will do, while relying on Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” is ominous since an increasingly muscular China is doing what others did to it when they were smitten by dreams of empire. Sorry, but it’s no longer Boxer Rebellion time.

But there’s more. What if the Chinese lobbed a few shells at the next warship they spy inside their claimed 12-mile zone? 0r if Chinese hardliners (they have them too) violate Alaska’s territorial limits as they did in 2012 or even one day risk an improbable challenge to our sainted if tainted Monroe Doctrine by sending a few warships for a Gulf of Mexico cruise defying  US domination of South and Central America? Other than our fuming legion of pugnacious home-bound patriots who demand action (“War hath no fury like a non-combatant” presciently observed the British journalist and WWI combat officer Charles Edward Montague) what could the US do?

China now has plenty of nukes as do its putative Russian and North Korean allies, so who is fooling whom? Would the US actually go to war over Spratly’s islets and freedom of navigation in a distant sea? (Would China, close by?) If not, why is the United States making idle threats? The truth is the powerlessness of nuclear powers to fight one another and win, let alone survive. Before he became President, Ronald Reagan said the US could fight and win a limited nuclear war, a notion that was and remains insane. In Asia (as with Putin’s Russia and Ukraine), the war business has changed drastically and a new game plan is desperately needed before things get out of control.

There are no easy answers to complex situations compounded by extreme nationalism and widespread ignorance. Standing on warships and talking tough while invoking Teddy’s Big Stick mantra will no longer wash. So how about a little quiet diplomacy? If it appears to be working between Washington and Tehran why not also Washington and Beijing (and Moscow too)?

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