Bhutan is considered by some to be the world’s happiest country. Recently Chinese troops entered that happy country to construct a road and are currently in a face-off with Indian troops sent to stop them. It appears that it all has to do with internal Chinese politics.
There is to be a 19th Party Congress in China in 2017. The year is more than half over but no date has yet been set for it. The Congress is supposed to be in autumn, so thousands of high level Chinese officials will have their schedules disrupted at short notice. It seems that President Xi needs to shore up his position and, with the failure of the Henry Kissinger-aided effort to sell Taiwan down the river, military antics at the other end of the Middle Kingdom are being used to demonstrate what a tough guy President Xi is. Perhaps we will know if China’s military adventurism has been deemed successful when a date is set for the 19th Party Congress.
The UK has entered the fray with an undertaking made by Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary, that the UK’s two new aircraft carriers will undertake a freedom-of-navigation exercise in the South China Sea. The first of these, HMS Queen Elizabeth, has started sea trials. The second carrier isn’t expected to enter service until 2020. So the UK has plenty of time to change its mind about sending under-armed warships into the South China Sea without air cover. The last time the UK tried that did ended badly. In December, 1941, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse were sent north from Singapore to interdict the Japanese fleet. The Japanese sunk both almost effortlessly.
There is another parallel from earlier in the 20th century. In February, 1904, Japan launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur. Russia responded by sending part of its Baltic fleet to Vladivostok. After setting off in October 1904, the Russian fleet sailed 25,000 km and reached the Straits of Tsushima in late May 1905, where most of it was sunk by the Japanese in a two day battle.
The modern UK sacrificial offerings to Mars may be aircraft carriers but they will be carrying the F-35B (perhaps) and be facing Chinese shored-based anti-ship missiles at point blank range. The UK is operating under the assumption that China won’t sink their shiny new ships, but China might. Consider that when Australia made similar noises last year about conducting freedom-of-navigation exercises, China concluded that Australia would “be an ideal target for China to warn and strike” — as it would from the Chinese perspective because it would demonstrate resolve and not necessarily lead to a war. The result would be to reinforce China’s position. The same would be true of the UK losing a few warships. The Chinese population is continually reminded of the Century of Humiliation which started with the Opium Wars instigated by the UK. There would be trade sanctions for a while if British warships were sunk but President Xi’s position would be reinforced and become unassailable.
If China attacked ships, aircraft or bases of Vietnam, the United States and Japan then the result would be a war in which all parties became involved. The opportunity to sink anybody else’s ships would be welcomed by China because President Xi would see off any challengers to the throne.
If the likes of the UK wanted to take a constructive role in the South China Sea, then they should consider helping out the Vietnamese who have 21 bases there. These are a major embarrassment to China’s claim to the area. So one day China will remove them by force and China is building up its amphibious capability to that end. Simple concrete blocks on the reefs around these bases would make the Chinese assault far more costly. In a similar vein, conduct a resupply effort to the Filipino troops who live in the rotting hulk of the Sierra Madre, a former U.S. landing ship run upon Second Thomas Reef in 1999.
The big question remains: are we still on track for war with China? Perhaps the best indication of that is the rate of Chinese incursions into Japanese waters, updated monthly by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That is still in uptrend: China has no intention of living peaceably with anyone. Prepare accordingly.
David Archibald is the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare