Fireworks on China’s Border

• Will tensions between China and America’s Pacific allies draw U.S. into war?

By Richard Walker —

As tensions between China and some of its neighbors have increased, the Obama administration has moved naval assets to the Pacific with promises to shift more military hardware to the region, especially the East China and South China seas. As a consequence, there is good reason to fear if a conflict breaks out there it could quickly eclipse the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The White House has opted for pursuing an aggressive policy in the Pacific by publicly declaring the United States will defend the Philippines and Japan, which are both actively engaged in disputes with China.


In the case of the Philippines, it is over 265 small islands known as the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. They are mostly tiny, uninhabited islands and rocky atolls. Beneath them are massive oil and gas fields, however. The dispute also involves Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia.

Japan’s territorial confrontation with China is over similar uninhabited outcrops in the East China Sea that all have natural resources buried deep below them.

To true American nationalists, this is not a part of the world where the U.S. should be willing to fight a war. But the Obama administration must think otherwise because it has invoked mutual security treaties with Japan and the Philippines.

On February 10, for instance, Secretary of State John Kerry assured Japan the U.S. would defend it over provocations that have been linked to the disputed islands. Kerry’s promise followed a similar one given to the Philippines in June 2013 by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel,who invoked a 1951 treaty. Hagel discussed with Filipino generals a strategy for upgrading the U.S. military presence in their country.

Donate to us

In the case of the Philippines, China insists it has historical rights to ownership of the Spratlies going back to the 13th century, when one of its astronomers placed an observation platform on a small outcrop called Scarborough Shoal Island. Philippine Supreme Court Senior Justice Antonio T. Carpio, an expert on maritime matters, has scoffed at such claims, pointing out that in the 13th century Scarborough Shoal was a rock with no vegetation, and it would not have been possible for an astronomer and a landing party to place anything on it.

While such historical debates could appear absurd, there is nevertheless a steely determination by all sides to assert control over parts of the Spratlies chain and the islands in the East China Sea bordering Japan. The Philippines is seeking to upgrade its naval assets to prevent China establishing outposts on small atolls, some as little as 95 nautical miles off the Philippine coastline.

China has made it clear it will do whatever is necessary to establish its dominance of the seas in Asia, even if it means ignoring international laws permitting individual nations to have exclusion zones stretching 200 miles off their coastlines.

Beijing is certainly not intimidated by Washington and has been expanding its navy. Even without the larger ships it is building, the Chinese military would win a war with the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. simply could not move and re-supply enough naval assets to take on China, which is why such a conflict could quickly spiral into a nuclear one.

Writing in The Atlantic on February 6, Peter Beinart argued there should be a serious public debate in the U.S. about what it is willing to risk to protect what Washington calls its “interests in the Pacific.” He described China as a country with a “national sense of grievance” that wanted to “assert its dominance” in the region, confident “distant, status-quo powers that once held [China] in check could no longer do so.”

Ironically, neocons, who argue the U.S. should confront Russia over Crimea and China over Pacific disputes, would be outraged were China to send naval resources into America’s backyard to support Cuba or Venezuela if they had disputes with the U.S. about fishing rights and oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean.

Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.