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This week a Chinese military spokesman accused the United States of preparing to confront China over the issues of ownership of the West Philippine Sea. The spokesperson, Senior Colonel Yang Yujun, claimed that the U.S. was "smearing the Chinese Navy," presumably for no other reason than it is jealous of China's rise.|
Senior Colonel Yang is right but for the wrong reasons. The United States is preparing to confront China. The purpose isn't to smear the Chinese Navy, but rather to uphold a key strategic principle.
As a direct interest, the West Philippine Sea isn't of huge importance to America. The principle of freedom of navigation, on the other hand is very much an interest of America's. As a maritime power surrounded by two oceans and reliant on ocean-going trade, the United States must on principle resist all such claims — even those by countries as small as the Maldives.
The United States is the only country capable of countering China's claim to the West Philippine Sea. Despite the extraordinary growth and progress of the Chinese military over the past two decades, the U.S. military is still more powerful by a wide margin.
China is currently operating from a position of weakness. That's precisely why it must be countered now, before it grows more powerful. It's important to confront China over this issue now and — to borrow a term Chinese officials often use — "teach it a lesson."
Left unchecked, we don't know where China's ultimate ambitions might lie. It's best we don't find out.
In international relations, little is cut and dried. Complexity rules. The various, competing claims to the South China Sea make for a complicated situation, each country alternately proposing and disposing differing territorial boundaries.
One thing is cut and dried: China — or any other country — cannot be allowed to take the West Philippine Sea unilaterally. Doing so would let might make right, and embolden the country to make more claims in the future. This will make for some tense moments above, on, and below the West Philippine Sea, and could even conceivably start a war.
But simply letting China do whatever it wants is not an option. The risks are much smaller now, while China is weak, and infinitely better than the alternative of confronting a stronger, more powerful China down the road. The sooner China learns to play by the rules, the better.