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July 15, 2016

Are We Ready for the South China Sea Powder Keg?

China has no intention of abiding a ruling unfavorable to its expansion.

China’s claims in the South China Sea were shredded by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, a United Nations tribunal in The Hague, whose 501-page ruling isn’t likely to be the last word on the matter. State-run media in the People’s Republic of China wasted no time denouncing the ruling as a “farce.” Hours before the ruling came down, the ChiComs sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, then interfered with rescue operations. This past May, a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II electronic surveillance plane had a near-miss with a Chinese J-11 jet fighter.

The ChiComs, it should be noted, did not take part in the legal process. Like the brother-boinking Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones,” they didn’t care about how the Permanent Court of Arbitration would rule, because they had no intention of giving up assets like their base at Mischief Reef. (Yes, it’s actually called that.)

The aggressive Chinese actions are bad enough. But in the seven-way South China Sea stand-off, not only are tensions high, so are the stakes — and not just for the countries with competing claims. The South China Sea is a major economic artery in the western Pacific, and a place through which supertankers full of oil must pass en route to Japan and South Korea. Japan, incidentally, has its own maritime territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands.

The Obama administration promised a “pivot to Asia” coupled with the pullout from Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, the pullout from the Middle East hasn’t worked out so well, to the point that more and more American troops have been sent back to Iraq to fight the Islamic State. Now, America’s “pivot to Asia” strategy may not only be facing a much more urgent timetable, but it also is now a higher-risk strategy largely due to choices by the Obama administration. In essence, the higher risk has been self-inflicted.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, the United States had 11 active nuclear-powered carriers in service: the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and 10 Nimitz-class carriers. But there were another seven oil-fueled carriers — four Forrestal-class, two Kittyhawk-class, and the USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) — which were still capable of serving and had been held in reserve.

This was an important hedge, because it took five to seven years to build a Nimitz-class carrier. But the nearly finished lead ship of the next class of aircraft carriers, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), will have taken 11 years to build. Oh, and while the Ford was undergoing that lengthy construction process, the Obama administration chose to retire the aforementioned Enterprise in 2012, even though it might have been smarter to give that carrier a refueling and complex overhaul to keep her in service at least until the Ford was ready.

That was bad enough. What’s worse is that since 2014, the Obama administration has sent five of the older carriers, Forrestal (CV 59), Saratoga (CV 60), Ranger (CV 61), Independence (CV 62) and Constellation (CV 64) to Brownsville, Texas, to be scrapped. Enterprise (CVN 65) is also slated for scrapping. Two carriers, the USS Kittyhawk (CV 63) and John F. Kennedy (CV 67), are reportedly on hold for donation as museums.

Thus, the vast majority of these conventionally powered reserve strategic assets have been deliberately discarded, as will be the nuclear-powered Enterprise. Just in time for the South China Sea to explode.

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