The revelation on Wednesday by the Ministry of National Defense that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) is a nasty retort and challenge to US President Barack Obama. It came on the heels of his innovative effort at the US-ASEAN leaders’ summit on Monday and Tuesday to reinforce a regional consensus ensuring a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.
The PRC’s response should not surprise people. China’s militarization of its claimed maritime territories has been ongoing for years, as have the bullying tactics against neighbors who have their own claims. The installation of anti-aircraft missiles was an inevitable step in the PRC process of fortifying Woody Island, along with creating artificial islands from sand shoals, and constructing on them airstrips and naval docks capable of handling military deployments.
Surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island were as inevitable as the escalating arc of domestic oppression that has led to crackdowns in China on journalists, bloggers, academics, Muslims, Christians, Tibetans, Uighurs and anyone else who allegedly threatens Chinese Communist Party rule. It was as inevitable as the erosion of the principle of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong that has led to attacks on publishers, editors and journalists, and now the apparent kidnapping and imprisonment of Hong Kong bookstore owners.
The immediate US response has been for its Secretary of State John Kerry to say the US expects to have “very serious” talks with China about its militarization of the South China Sea. However, the Chinese Ministry of Defense has dismissed reports about its missile deployment as nothing but “hype.”
Meanwhile, according to CNN quoting a Vietnamese government Web site, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has urged Obama to have a “strong voice” and take “more practical action” to put an end to activities aimed at changing the “status quo” in the region.
It is long past time when the US should stop mouthing polite fictions about the PRC’s alleged cooperation. Washington needs to own up to the fact that the China that helped us reach a nuclear accord with Iran is also the nation — based on the testimony of both US government officials and academics — that did more than anyone to help build Iran’s nuclear program in the first place. The China that helped organize the six-party talks is also the nation that has enabled North Korea to pursue its nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs.
It is also long past time for the US to recognize, as the Beijing Qinghua University professor Yan Xuetong (閻學通) has long argued, that not only does the US not share common values with Beijing, but also, aside from a mutual desire to avoid armed conflict, the two nations share few common interests.
The most important question now is what Washington should do in the face of this latest provocation. Most immediately, Obama should issue a strong public condemnation of this escalation of China’s militarization of the South China Sea. The US should also step up naval and air freedom of navigation exercises, and undertake negotiations with allies and partners in the neighborhood to place anti-missile batteries on their territories, including bolstering Taiwan’s mobile coastal missile defense systems.
The US should stop the pretense that it can engage with China as a “responsible international stakeholder,” and in contrast start treating Taiwan as a responsible and democratic stakeholder. This is something Washington should do in any case, regardless of what happens in the South China Sea.
Washington should approve high-level executive, as well as Congressional, attendance at president-elect Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) inauguration; issue more frequent and vocal criticism of Chinese behavior, both at home and abroad, and especially in response to any efforts to intimidate Taiwan; and it should approve and facilitate the transfer of advanced weapons technology to Taiwan.
Assuming Seoul does not get cold feet, the US should also undertake the immediate deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system to South Korea, something Beijing strongly opposes.
The US should, in addition, consider halting military contact with the People’s Liberation Army (although US military leaders are loath to do this), as the Chinese have frequently done in the past.
The US should reduce the number of Chinese journalists in the US to the same level as US journalists in China, and it should certainly refuse to accept China as a “market economy.”
It is time for the US to treat Beijing with the reciprocity it deserves and in a manner befitting its behavior.
William Stanton, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, is director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University.
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