“We cannot win that back,” said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in late 2016. He was referring to the Scarborough Shoal, a sizable coral atoll with a reef-rimmed lagoon. The fish-rich shoal lies a short 120 nautical miles from the Philippines coast, placing it well within the country’s internationally recognized territory. In 2012, China illegally seized the atoll from the Philippines, but not for the fishing. The Chinese wanted Scarborough as part of its “strategic triangle” plan to assert control over the South China Sea.
The triangle’s two other points are the Spratly Archipelago and the Paracel Islands. The year after China occupied Scarborough, it started building artificial islands in the Spratly chain. In 2016, it deployed missile batteries to one of the Paracels.
The eyes of Asia looked to the United States. How would America respond? Its military has kept the vital trade routes through the South China Sea open since the end of World War ii. China’s aggressive takeovers were in areas claimed by U.S. partners such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Its objective was to control crucial shipping lanes, and a 2016 international tribunal had invalidated China’s claims.
But the Obama administration did little more than wag its finger. Conflict with China was unthinkable. So the U.S. let it continue taking over the South China Sea.
America’s partners and allies took note of its inaction and grew fearful. “Even if we get angry, we’ll just be putting on airs. We can’t beat [China],” Duterte said. The best the Philippines could hope for now, he said, was to cooperate with China as it extracted resources near Scarborough and other areas that rightfully belong to the Philippines.
Meanwhile, China was emboldened by U.S. inaction. It accelerated its illegal island building and quietly continued to militarize more territory.
Today it is clear that China’s assault on the freedom of the sea was effective.
In the Paracels, China now has a significant military base with missiles, radar, an airstrip, and aircraft including fighters and nuclear-capable bombers. In the Spratlys, China has now created more than 3,000 acres of land on seven reefs that were previously wholly or partly submerged. On these new islands, China has deployed anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and airstrips accommodating fighters, bombers and cargo planes. And twice in the last year, in a clear demonstration of China’s power over the sea, it successfully coerced Vietnam into halting major oil-drilling projects in waters that international law says are Vietnamese.
Scarborough Shoal is the last part of the puzzle.
So far, China has not converted the atoll into a militarized island. But China maintains tight control over it and could rapidly transform it into a base if it decides to. This would complete the “strategic triangle” and give China monitoring, policing and strike capacity across the 1.4 million-square-mile South China Sea, almost all of which China claims as its own. Such capacity could allow China to establish an air defense identification zone over the sea, requiring foreign aircraft to obtain Chinese permission to fly through the region.
The World’s ‘Most Valuable Artery’
The South China Sea contains immense natural resources, including an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 10 percent of global fisheries. Because of its abundance of hydrocarbons, some experts call it “the second Persian Gulf.”
Even more important is the fact that trillions of dollars in goods sail through the South China Sea each year on the way to and from some of the most populous regions on the globe. Almost 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy deliveries, 60 percent of South Korea’s energy, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports transit this waterway.
Altogether, around 21 percent of all global trade passes through the sea.
“The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans,” writes Stratfor’s Robert D. Kaplan in his book Asia’s Cauldron. It is “the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce” and the “region that will dominate the future of geopolitical conflict.”
The Sydney Morning Herald recently called the South China Sea “the world’s most valuable commercial artery.”
‘Just Let China Have It’
To understand how alarming it will be for authoritarian China to close its grip over “the world’s most valuable artery,” one needs look no further than to Xinjiang. There the Chinese government uses Orwellian surveillance, an unaccountable state security apparatus, a near total media blackout and “thought control camps” reminiscent of the Moaist era to assert tight control over people who would prefer to be a separate nation.
But Duterte is not the only voice saying the wisest course of action is to let China have its way. Many in the West, who are far removed from the South China Sea, are essentially saying, in the words of Ely Ratner of the Center for a New American Security’s Asia-Pacific Security Program, “[A]ccommodation is preferable to risking war over ‘a bunch of rocks.’”
James Laurenceson, deputy director of the Australia–China Relations Institute of the University of Technology, seems to agree with this logic: “[I]f China were able to block the South China Sea, the impact on economic growth in other countries is likely to be small,” he wrote on June 4, 2017.
Since trade can be rerouted, Laurenceson said, countries in the region generally do not stand up to China’s actions in the South China Sea. Japan, for example, could bypass the South China Sea entirely and instead receive energy shipments through the Lombok Strait, between the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok—although doing so does come at a cost: “[E]xclusively taking the Lombok route would have increased Japan’s oil import costs by $us300 million annually,” he wrote. “This equates to just 0.2 per cent of Japan’s oil import bill that year.”
This myopic rationalizing sounds extreme. But it may not be far removed from the reasoning that prevented the Obama administration from acting against China’s grab of Scarborough or its militarization of the Spratly Archipelago and the Paracels. However, by failing to confront these illegal behaviors early and decisively, America showed that it was willing to potentially sacrifice “a bunch of rocks” in order to avoid conflict with China. It showed that the South China Sea was a price the war-weary U.S. was willing to pay to keep the peace.
History rebukes such reasoning. Yielding territory to expansionist powers does not bring peace.
Failure of Appeasement
“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last,” Winston S. Churchill famously said. Before Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain, he had witnessed political leaders attempt to secure peace by appeasing an expansionist nation.
On Sept. 30, 1938, leaders of Britain and France signed an agreement allowing Nazi Germany to annex the Sudetenland. This region of Czechoslovakia was of vital strategic importance to the nation, since the bulk of its border defenses and industrial centers were situated there. Czechoslovakia was an ally of France and Britain, but Hitler had threatened to take the Sudetenland by force. British and French leaders sought to avoid a repeat of World War i at all costs. They thought that by giving the Sudetenland to Germany willingly, the provocative Nazi regime would be placated and conflict could be avoided.
After returning home from the historic signing ceremony, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed: “I believe it is peace for our time,” and told the crowd at the airfield and those listening to the broadcast, “Go home and sleep quietly in your beds.” The U.S. administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the agreement, and Gallup polls in the U.S., Britain and France found that the majority of people in all three nations supported it, too.
But the deal was a sham. In the spring of 1939, the Nazis took the rest of Czechoslovakia. In September they invaded Poland, and Britain and France had no choice but to declare war. World War ii had begun. By the time it was over, more than 60 million lives had been lost in the deadliest conflict in human history.
Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry writes about the appeasement in his booklet Winston S. Churchill: The Watchman: “The U.S. was even more pacifist than Britain. How could so many of our leaders in the United States and Britain—almost all of them—have been so weak in dealing with Hitler?”
Mr. Flurry answers: The leaders “lacked the courage to face the brutal truth” about Adolf Hitler’s dark ambitions. “Most leaders in the U.S. and UK lived in a weak world of illusion,” he writes.
Subsequent generations of Americans and Britons have not learned from history. “We simply lack the will to deal with tyrants and finish the job,” Mr. Flurry writes. “We have a pathetic lack of will in a very dangerous world. We can’t afford the pacifist attitude we had before World War ii and survive nationally. Yet our pacifist attitude today is far worse than it was then.”
A Modern Sudetenland?
The Sudetenland situation before World War ii differs from the South China Sea controversy today. But in both cases, the United States and other world powers are allowing an expansionist power to grab strategically valuable territory in hopes of keeping the peace.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino iii, compared the Sudetenland to the South China Sea during his presidency in 2014. Speaking to the New York Times about China’s activities in the South China Sea, he said: “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’? Well, the world has to say it. Remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War ii.”
Dan Eberhart of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council also says it is a fair comparison. “The Obama [administration] failed to forcefully confront China as it expanded its territorial claims in the South China Sea, dutifully playing the role of Neville Chamberlain as China intimidated our allies,” he wrote. “[I]n the absence of American power, China’s appetite for expanding its influence and territorial claims in the South China Sea went largely unchecked.”
He says the result has been “an emboldened China that has militarized its position in the region through land reclamation activities and been openly aggressive in its encounters with American vessels.” He adds that if China’s territorial expansion is left unchecked, it will “expose the whole of Southeast Asia to China’s nationalist goals.”
Peter Beinart, a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, also sees the South China Sea as a modern Sudetenland. “[C]hina today—like Germany in the 1930s—is a country converting its tremendous economic vitality into military might,” he wrote. “It’s a country with a strong sense of historical grievance that wants to assert what it considers its natural role as the dominant power in its region. And it’s a country whose leaders are increasingly confident that the distant, status-quo powers that once held it in check can no longer do so.”
It is true that U.S. President Donald Trump has begun to take a somewhat firmer stance against China’s expansionism. He has increased the tempo of U.S. military patrols in the South China Sea, including a recent operation that sailed a guided-missile cruiser and a destroyer past the Paracels. But like Obama, President Trump has declined to confirm that America’s mutual defense treaty with the Philippines includes its territories in the South China Sea.
Bible prophecy shows that America’s measures to stand up to China are too little, too late. It forecasts that American resolve will not last, and that China will keep tightening its grip on this vital sea to the detriment of global peace.
‘Steering the World Toward War’
In the Trumpet’s July 2016 issue, Mr. Flurry said Beijing’s tightening grip on this area is “steering the world toward war.” China is challenging “seven decades of American naval dominance in the Pacific Rim,” he wrote. This belligerent behavior “should alarm the world!”
Mr. Flurry continued, “Since Japan’s defeat in World War ii, America has protected this vital trade route and brought peace to this part of the world.” But since the U.S. is now retreating from the region, “other great powers are coming in to fill the vacuum,” he continued. “China is intimidating the nations of Southeast Asia into submission to its will. It is forcing these countries to do what it wants. Everything is headed in the direction of war.”
Mr. Flurry’s understanding of the South China Sea dynamic is founded on the sure word of Bible prophecy.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God issues a warning to the people of Israel, explaining that if they reject Him, He will hand control over the world’s strategic sea gates to their enemies. The warning says that these enemy nations would then use that control to besiege the nations of Israel: “And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trustedst, throughout all thy land …” (Deuteronomy 28:52).
Mr. Flurry made clear that this ancient warning is not intended only for ancient peoples. “It is a prophecy for the modern-day descendants of Israel!” he wrote. “Two nations in particular represent Israel in this end time: America and Britain.” These two countries “are full of terrible sins today, and God is going to correct them for that! This prophecy and several others show that He will send foreign enemies to punish America and Britain!”
America’s failure to confront China as it tightens its grip on the South China Sea is leading to the fulfillment of this prophecy. This points to some dark days in the near term.
But Mr. Flurry explained that there is great cause for hope in these trends because this approaching besiegement and war is tied to good news: “All this prophesied destruction is what it will take for God to reach this world!” he wrote. “After this, people will be ashamed—and they will get to know God! Ezekiel repeatedly talked about that inspiring conclusion (e.g. Ezekiel 6:7; 7:4; 11:10; 12:20; 13:9; 23:48-49; etc). Yes, there is a lot of bad news when you consider what it takes to get people to the point of knowing God. But ultimately, the outcome is spectacularly good news!”