- by Brian Cloughley

 On the 5th of November, the US Navy Times had summed up Washington’s policy with regards to the South China Sea by stating: “Pentagon chief takes jab at China with aircraft carrier stop”.


This interesting aspect of America’s official policy about China was the result of one visit by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an enormous aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, where on October 27, the guided missile destroyer, USS Lassen, had been ordered to try and provoke China into reacting to a confrontational incursion into territorial waters that has been claimed by China. 

Carter was in Asia at the time, and as part of his country’s demonstration of worldwide military presence and power, decided to emphasise that dominance by holding a press conference on board one of its largest strike ships. The USS Theodore Roosevelt is nuclear-powered, and very likely nuclear-armed (the Pentagon refuses to comment on such things), and is the most important vessel in Carrier Strike Group Twelve (CSG-12), which has 44 F-18 strike fighters, 5 Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft and countless attack helicopters.

Accompanying the carrier, there are normally two or three guided missile destroyers, and over the horizon, there is an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) of three major assault landing ships with 5,000 Marines, escorting frigates, and even more attack aircrafts.  It was reported that  “the US Navy has not ruled out the possibility that the ARG may be deployed for South China Sea operations”.

Make no mistake! Washington has fuelled the growing tension in the South China Sea.  On the 7th of November, President Xi Jinping made it clear that “the freedom of navigation and overflight in South China Sea neither has been nor will be hindered.” He had stressed that “China needs unimpeded passage in the body of water more than any other country does”.

So just what is Washington’s problem?  

There is complete freedom of navigation to pass through the South China Sea, which as Beijing emphasised, is absolutely important for China’s trade and thus its economic progress. An enormous number of ships, including vital oil tankers, sail through to Chinese ports, from which China exports raw materials and manufactured goods to Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The People’s Republic of China is not going to take any action that would cripple its own commerce.

It was therefore disturbing to hear Mr Carter announcing that “there is a lot of concern about Chinese behaviour out here” because of “the tension in this part of the world, mostly arising from disputes over land features in the South China Sea, and most of the activity over the last year being perpetrated by China.” 

It is not China that is seeking confrontation by deploying the Carrier Strike Groups and sending guided missile destroyers and aircraft around and over Chinese-claimed territory in acts of blatant provocation.

Carter had also observed that “the US military has helped to maintain peace and stability in the region for 70 years,” which is absurd, bearing in mind that 58,220 members of the US military lost their lives in the catastrophic bloodbath of the Vietnam War. His memory also appears to be pretty selective about the years of hideous conflict, in which “from 1964 to 1973 the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions — equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years — making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.”

Mr Carter’s understanding of ‘peace and stability’ is inconsistent with the facts — as is his sabre-rattling stance over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. It is ironic that his bizarre assertion about 70 years of peace and stability was delivered when he was on a nuclear aircraft carrier sailing only a few miles east of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — the countries that Washington bombed mercilessly throughout the so many awful years of war. 

In addition, President Obama set the scene for Washington’s confrontational global approach by saying on CBS Television in June 2015 that China is certainly “big and powerful” and “it may be that some of their claims are legitimate... But they shouldn’t just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way.”  

Obama did not specify which group of people are being ‘pushed out of the way’ by China, any more than his belligerent Defence Secretary explained his proclamation that China’s international success is in some fashion a “challenge” to the United States. On 7th November 2015, Carter gave a speech at the annual Reagan National Defence Forum where he “explained how Russia and China challenge the United States’ capacity to innovate and change.” His weird argument included the intriguing assertion that “China is a rising power, and growing more ambitious in its objectives and capabilities.”

Of course China is ambitious about its future — just as Russia is, about which Carter displayed paranoia in his pronouncement stating that he “reject the notion that Russia should be afforded a ‘sphere of influence’.” 

Washington does not realise how much resentment it has created throughout the world by its continual emphasis that only the US can be permitted an all-embracing ‘sphere of influence’. Obama’s pronouncement that America is “the one indispensable nation in world affairs” is smilingly regarded by the world’s more sophisticated citizens as being harmless conceit — but he and the Pentagon are dead serious, and their policy of military antagonism is aimed at any nation that has the temerity to grow “more ambitious in its objectives and capabilities.”

To underscore Washington’s obsession with challenging China by flaunting military might, two B-52 bombers were sent to fly over the South China Sea on the night of the 8th - 9th November. 1Exactly what this childish display was supposed to achieve is not clear, but one thing is certain - regardless of its futility, it will be remembered by China. 

Insulting and provoking nations that are ambitious about their objectives and capabilities might seem clever and bold to such, as the intellectually arrogant Carter, but Washington would be wise to bear in mind that all countries have a breaking point. Threatening China and Russia might play well with US voters, but in terms of realpolitik, the sabre-rattlers are playing a very dangerous game. Confrontation in the South China Sea is counterproductive and will result in further tension and international turbulence. But perhaps, this is exactly what Washington wants.


Brian Cloughley is South Asia defence analyst and author of ‘A History of the Pakistan Army’