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China has accused the US of what it calls a “serious violation of Chinese sovereignty” after two US warships passed by South China Sea islands that Beijing claims as its own. We speak to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who warns that the dispute is “fraught with danger.”

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

A long-simmering dispute between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea is intensifying. China has accused the U.S. of what it calls a serious violation of Chinese sovereignty after two U.S. warships passed by the South China Sea islands that China claims as its own. China has built installations and conducted military exercises as part of its claim to 80 percent of South China Sea waters. That claim is disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei. But since 2010, the U.S. has gotten increasingly involved. And this week, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. will continue to confront what he called China’s militarization in South China Sea waters.

JAMES MATTIS: There had been a promise in 2015 by the President Xi in the Rose Garden, the White House meeting, where he stated they would not be militarizing the Spratly Islands. We have seen the last month they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before. We are going out of our way to cooperate with Pacific nations. That’s the way we do business in the world. But we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law, out of step with international tribunals that have spoken on the issue. And part of this is we maintain a very transparent military activity out in the Pacific.

AARON MATE: Joining me is Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Welcome, Colonel. If you could explain for us what you see as at stake in this complicated dispute, because it’s not just between the U.S. and the South China Sea- it’s not just between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea, but it also involves many other Pacific nations who are also at odds with China.

LARRY WILKERSON: Yes, it does. At the head of that other list of nations, if you will, are a treaty ally with the United States, the Philippines, and another country with whom the United States has had various sorts of relations, of late fairly warm relations, Vietnam. Vietnam, of course, has its own ideas, and in many respects actually started all this by moving out on some of these unclaimed islands, [sealets], if you will, or islets, if you will, and beginning to do things on them. The Chinese picked up on that, and began to do more things. And of course, the Chinese had far more capacity to do these things than the Vietnamese did.

So it is a contested thing that the Chinese are doing, but others, others have tried to do it, too, for various reasons. Fishing, possible fossil fuel resources, mineral resources, and so forth. I think China’s principal reason for doing it, we can see quite clearly now, is that they look at the South China Sea much the way we look at the Gulf of Mexico. But even more, if you will, in your face, because they see that as keeping, first of all, us at a distance from them, their very critical element, military elements in Fujian province and on [Hainan] Island, in particular. Getting a standoff distance, if you will, by being further out. And this is the maritime edge, if you will, of their Belt Road Initiative. The big one, of course, the trillion dollar one going across Central Asia.

But this is a hedging strategy for that one. A maritime road, also, which we’ve seen recently in the news, really, because China is running railroads to Iran. It’s joining India and other countries in helping Iran do refurbishment of its ports, particularly in Chabahar and Bandar Abbas. So China is breaking out, if you will. It’s very ahistorical in some senses, because China has never been a power projection country. Never been a country that threatened people beyond its borders. It felt pretty content to stay within the Middle Kingdom and stay within the mandate of heaven, if you will, and not to mix with the other barbarians in the world. This is a very different kind of approach for China, and I think it comes along with having funded their military to the point now where their military is becoming somewhat like our own, where it has its own policy agenda, and civilians dare not disregard that policy agenda entirely.

So yes, this is an area that presents us with a real challenge, because one, it introduces us to a possible confrontation area with the number one power in the world other than ourselves. And two, it’s fraught with all manner of allied participation, or friendly participation, for various and sundry reasons, most of which are self interest, just as is China’s. But China is much bigger than they are. And so they need us, bilaterally and multilaterally, to be able to stand up to China, whether they’re the Philippines, the Sultan of Brunei, or Vietnam. They need us.

AARON MATE: Well, let me ask you, when the U.S. explains its reasons for being engaged in this dispute, of course the U.S. has no territorial claim to South China Sea waters, it cites exactly that. It says that our allies have asked us to intervene. Is that accurate?

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, that’s accurate as far as it goes. But it’s rhetoric that covers up the real complexity and the real reason we’re there. And that is true in another place where China seems to be growing beyond its trousers, so to speak. We’re challenging them. This is the case wherever China reaches out and seems to be operating in a way that is inimical to international interests, but most cogently inimical to U.S. interests. We don’t want China having that vast swath of ocean that increases their strategic depth, particularly if someday we feel like we might have to take China on. It also, if you look at it closely, look at the map closely, it also more or less increases the isolation of Taiwan, because you spread China’s defensive perimeter out so far that you push Taiwan deeply into China’s strategic orbit. Of course, that’s what they want. That’s not necessarily what we want.

So it’s a dangerous set of circumstances. And every day that goes by I sit and wonder, and I read, like Evan Feigenbaum’s recent long piece on China. Evan’s one of the smartest China heads going. And I’m listening to others who are in the region right now, some in Singapore, some in Burma, Myanmar, some in Sri Lanka, some in India, telling me about what they’re seeing with the land base, based Road initiative of the Chinese. And while I’m very confident that this is a, an initiative that has the chance to be a Marshall Plan times 10, or times 20 the vast sums that are associated with it, and lift maybe a billion people over time into the middle classes and out of poverty. I still see some of the ramifications of it as being increasingly so much in China’s interest and so little in the host country’s interest, if you will, like Sri Lanka, that I’m wondering just how innocent and how positive for the peoples in the region this Chinese initiative is.

And so inevitably you see this tension building between the rising power and the status quo power that Graham Allison talked about in his recent book, and it’s worrisome, because we don’t need a war between these two powers. And to come back to your point, the South China Sea is a likely sparking point for such a war. I’ve done these war games. I know what it is to go to the defence of Taiwan, so to speak. I know what it is to take the Chinese on in these waters, and you don’t want to go there. Neither Beijing nor Washington wants to go there, and certainly not Japan, or Indonesia, or Australia, or any of the countries in Southeast Asia or nearby, or in Northeast Asia. You just don’t want to go there. It winds up being nuclear. In every war game I ever fought, it winds up being nuclear. That’s not where the world needs to be going.

AARON MATE: All right. We’ll take a break and come back in Part 2. My guest is Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and currently a history professor at the College of William and Mary.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.