Should We Fight for the Spratlys?

Subi Reef (Photo: Ritchie B. Tongo, AP)
Subi Reef (Photo: Ritchie B. Tongo, AP)
Pat Buchanan
Pat Buchanan

USA – -( Trailed by two Chinese warships, the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed inside the 12-nautical-mile limit of Subi Reef, a man-made island China claims as her national territory.

Beijing protested. Says China: Subi Reef and the Spratly Island chain, in a South China Sea that carries half of the world's seaborne trade, are as much ours as the Aleutians are yours.

Beijing's claim to the Spratlys is being contested by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan. While Hanoi and Manila have occupied islets and built structures to back their claims, the Chinese have been more aggressive.

They have occupied rocks and reefs with troops, dredged and expanded them into artificial islands, fortified them, put up radars and are building air strips and harbors.

What the Chinese are about is easy to understand.

Having feasted and grown fat on trade surpluses with the United States, the Chinese are translating their economic strength into military power and a new strategic assertiveness.

They want to dominate East Asia and all the seas around it.

We have been told our warships are unwelcome in the Yellow Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Beijing also claims the Senkakus that Japan occupies, which are covered by our mutual security treaty.

And not only is the South China Sea one of the world's crucial waterways, the fish within can feed nations and the floor below contains vast deposits of oil and gas.

Who owns the islands in the South China Sea owns the sea.

Moreover, our world has changed since Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend Taiwan and the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu — and since Bill Clinton sent two U.S. carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Strait.

Now we send a lone destroyer inside the 12-mile limit of a reef that, until recently, was under water at high tide.

What China is doing is easily understandable. She is emulating the United States as we emerged to become an imperial power.

After we drove Spain out of Cuba in 1898, we annexed Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands, where America settlers had deposed the queen, took Wake and Guam, and annexed the Philippines. The subjugation of Filipino resistance required a three-year war and thousands of dead Marines.

And the reaction of President McKinley when he heard our Asian squadron had seized the islands:

“When we received the cable from Admiral Dewey telling of the taking of the Philippines I looked up their location on the globe. I could not have told where those darned islands were within 2,000 miles.”

In 1944, General MacArthur, whose father had crushed the Filipino resistance, retook the islands from the Japanese who had occupied them after Pearl Harbor.

At the end of the Cold War, however, Manila ordered the United States to get out of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay naval base. We did as told. Now our Filipino friends want us back to confront China for them, as do the Vietnamese Communists in Hanoi.

Before we get ourselves into the middle of their dispute, before we find ourselves in an air war or naval clash with China, we ought to ask ourselves a few questions.

First, why is this our quarrel? We have no claim to any of the Spratly or Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Yet, each of the claimants — Beijing, Taipei, Manila, Hanoi — seems to have maps going back decades and even centuries to support those claims.

Besides freedom of the seas, what is our vital interest here?

If these islands are Chinese territory, Beijing has the same right to build air and naval bases on them as we do in the Aleutians, Hawaii, Wake and Guam. What do we hope to accomplish by sailing U.S. warships into what China claims to be her territorial waters?

While the ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet are superior to those of the Chinese navy, China has more submarines, destroyers, frigates and missile boats, plus a vast inventory of ground-based missiles that can target warships at great distances.

In an increasingly nationalist China, Xi Jinping could not survive a climbdown of China's claims, or dismantlement of what Beijing has built in the South China Sea. President Xi no more appears to be a man to back down than does President Putin.

Continued U.S. overflights or naval intrusion into the territorial waters of Chinese-claimed islands are certain to result in a violent clash, as happened near Hainan Island in 2001.

Where would we go from there?

China today is in trouble. She is feared and distrusted by her neighbors; her economy has lost its dynamism; and the Communist Party is riven by purges and rampant corruption.

If we believe this will be the Second American Century, that time is on our side, that Chinese communism is a dead faith, we ought to avoid a clash and show our opposition to Beijing's excesses, if need be, by imposing tariffs on all goods made in China.

China's oligarchs will understand that message.

Patrick J. Buchanan is the author of the new book “The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose From Defeat to Create the New Majority.

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    ALAOVBrianParnellHoward Godwin Recent comment authors
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    America should fight for the Spratly and help the Philippines to claim for it. The Philippines having the best strategic
    location for US control in Southeast Asia should rebuild it’s military Bases there–regardless of how stubborn Philippine
    President Duterte’s attitude against US now a days. Duterte has a provincial mentality. U.S. should do it now before the Russians and the Chinese do it first. The sooner — the better, no matter how fast worker you are.


    Should We Fight for the Spratlys? Nope, as the U.S. hasn’t fought a winning war strategy since WWII… our soldiers have the courage and tech, but the politicians who send them into the field are gutless cowards, who tie our soldiers hands behind their backs with ridiculous ROE’s and then throw them into prison for killing known enemy combatants. Korea = Loss Vietnam = Loss Gulf War I = Loss Afghanistan = Loss Iraq = Loss Current WOT = Loss And if you think we will win going toe to toe with either Russia or China right now, you are… Read more »


    Really, The U.S. must show aggressiveness in helping the Philippines claim the Spratly Island. Take control of the
    far east before the Chinese and the Russians do.


    I fail to see the problem. Let them have it. Without China where would we get our cheap American flags? Where would stores like Harbor Freight and many others get there goods to sell. And does any of the other countries that are directly affected by this do anything for us? Going to war for this is stupid. The best way to get China to comply is to put a trade embargo in place. Oh… wait we can’t do that because who would loan us money to pay for our entitlement programs? It seems to me we have only one… Read more »


    Much as I would like to see a coalition of Asian states, led by Japan & India challenge the Chinese, I cannot believe the US can allow China to assert its claim to total control of the South China Sea.

    Howard Godwin
    Howard Godwin

    Capitulation, has never gained, us anything but, to back off from our values. The strength of America was and is our steadfast to be a controlling force in the world through standing up to the oppression of foreign aggression. If we continue to take the lead in this witness in this world we can not back off of our principles so many have died for! Mr Buchanan is a well read and author in his his own right, but I have taken exception to his hyperbole on many occasions. we are grounded in the Presents of the Almighty, and His… Read more »