In February, America’s commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, worryingly exclaimed that China’s sudden announcements of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea had been made unilaterally and without any consultation with other countries; “They sound ominous,” he concluded.
For years, the U.S. and its allies have refused to listen to threatening sounds emanating from China, but finally, in the past several months, they have started to uncover their ears. China’s clearly signaled ambitions in the East China Sea and its unabated annexation of the South China Sea are indeed ominous. Only those who continue to cover their ears and eyes will fail to perceive how closely China’s territorial expansion resembles the imperial metastasis of Japan in the era leading up to World War II.
So far, Beijing’s twenty-first-century territorial acquisitions are modest compared to Japan’s brutal conquests of Korea, Manchuria, Nanjing and other East Asian territories prior to the cataclysm of the Second World War, but Beijing’s recent actions undercut any confidence in its self-restraint. China’s combined military and economic strength already surpasses, in relative global terms, that of Japan during its doomed prewar era. So it would be naive to assume that the self-serving government in Beijing, which is desperate to prop up its legitimacy, would rein in its territorial reach—especially as it so explicitly hunts for natural resources under the rubric of national security. Whether via a massive oil rig that one of its executives labeled “a strategic weapon,” or by blunt-force military action, the Chinese Communist Party is duplicating, in the South China Sea, the strong-arm modus operandi of 1930’s Japan.
Whereas Beijing has tried to cast its East China Sea dispute as a battle against Japan’s never-cured territorial impulses, down in the South China Sea, Beijing’s gambit has been to promulgate versions of an odd 1947 map drawn by Chiang Kai-shek partisans, which showed the South China Sea to be roped to the Chinese mainland by a lasso of dash marks. There has been no substantive validation of these ill-defined “boundaries” invented by the fragile Chinese regime that was defeated by Mao Zedong’s army. Nonetheless, they constitute a propaganda tool now wielded by Beijing to try to bolster its charade of sovereignty over the South China Sea.
Even the officialdom of Beijing seems to be struggling with where the ephemeral “nine-dash line” of South China Sea ownership should be drawn. Shown here, for example, are photos from an exhibit at the grandly renovated National Museum of China, located on Tiananmen Square and administered by the government’s Ministry of Culture. The exhibit was a hagiography of Qian Xuesen (also written as Hsue-Shen Tsien), described as the father of China’s missile and nuclear arms programs. Qian was a brilliant scientist at Caltech in Los Angeles who became its Robert H. Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion and then moved to the country of his birth, China, later providing intellectual support for Mao’s famine-inducing “Great Leap Forward” of the 1950’s.
The Qian exhibit includes a large map of China with broad arrows along its coast depicting the threat of encroaching “American forces and their allies that encircle China.” The high-quality black-and-white China map includes a set of red dashes that on close inspection were obviously added in haphazard fashion after the map was printed.
With its disparate lead-pencil lines, erasures, and red magic-marker improvisations, the display in the museum shows in miniature the Chinese Communist Party’s designs and arbitrary ambitions, as well as its condescension toward those who might object to the boundaries it decides to draw on a map. What next might Beijing choose, out of thin air, to acquire with its red magic marker?
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, died, and many more were injured at the hands of an absolutist regime, it is of utmost importance to recognize that the current Beijing government is not equivalent to the Chinese people, nor vice versa. We should uncover our ears and listen to the freedom-seeking voices from that day in Beijing.
Victor Robert Lee reports from the Asia-Pacific region. His articles on the South China Sea, the East China Sea, China, Indonesia, and other Asian territories can be found in The Diplomat and elsewhere. His reporting has been cited by The Guardian, BBC News, CNN, The Economist, Mainichi Shimbun, The Singapore Straits Times, Asahi Shimbun, Bloomberg View, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Week, National Geographic and other media, and in hearings of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.