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Risky Business: Pat Buchanan Schools Neocons on South China Sea Drama

© AP Photo / Guang Niu, PoolChinese Navy warships
Chinese Navy warships - Sputnik International
In his column for The American Conservative, veteran commentator Pat Buchanan warned that before rushing headlong into the territorial dispute over the islands in the South China Sea, Washington must consider very carefully what its vital interests are, adding that the best way to challenge Chinese expansion is economic pressure, not militarism.

US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen - Sputnik International
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Outlining the contours of the increasingly dangerous military situation surrounding the territorial dispute between China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam over the strategically and economically significant Spratly and Paracel Islands, Buchanan asks what, "besides freedom of the seas, is [Washington's] vital interest here?"

The US, Buchanan recalls, has no formal claims to any of the islands, while "each of the claimants –Beijing, Taipei, Manila, Hanoi –seems to have maps going back decades and even centuries to support [their own] claims." 

With some of the countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, occupying individual islets and building structures to back their claims, China, the commentator notes, has gone about things more forcefully, occupying "rocks and reefs with troops, dredg[ing] and expand[ing] them into artificial islands, fortif[ying] them, put[ting] up radars, and…building air strips and harbors."

Putting things in perspective, and recalling the US's own adventures in conquering wide swathes of territory at the turn of the 20th century, the veteran political commentator explained that in the wider historical perspective, "what China is doing is easily understandable: She is emulating the United States as we emerged to become an imperial power."

Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., US Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command walks past a photograph showing an island that China is building on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea - Sputnik International
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"If the islands are Chinese territory," Buchanan continues, "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 US warships into what China claims to be her territorial waters?"

The commentator warns that in an environment where China is becoming a world power, "translating their economic strength into military power and a new strategic assertiveness," Beijing cannot really afford to back down. The Chinese leadership, Buchanan suggests, "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 US 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."

Moreover, while "the ships of the US Seventh Fleet are superior to those of the Chinese navy," Buchanan notes that "China has more submarines, destroyers, frigates and missile boats, plus a vast inventory of ground-based missiles that can target warships at great distances," making the prospects of success in pressuring the Chinese militarily highly unlikely.

Advising against further saber-rattling, Buchanan suggests that Washington should use economic pressures instead. "If we believe that 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."

USS Lassen (DDG 82), (R) transits in formation with ROKS Sokcho (PCC 778) during exercise Foal Eagle 2015, in waters east of the Korean Peninsula - Sputnik International
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And while substantive talks aimed at resolving the dispute may be preferable to tariffs, the latter certainly sound nicer than the prospect of a military conflagration between two great powers.

A veteran political commentator, columnist, and writer, Pat Buchanan is also the former White House Communications Director for the Reagan Administration, and a former Republican Party presidential candidate.

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