Given that China's President Xi Jinping started the year by obliquely warning the US to stay out of Taiwan's business, perhaps it's not surprising that Senators are starting to join US military commanders in warning Americans not to underestimate the threat posed by China's unprecedented military buildup in the Pacific.
In the latest - and perhaps the most stark - warning to date, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma - who recently took over as the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee - warned during a hearing about the challenges posed by China and Russia on Tuesday that people need to better understand the threats both countries pose to the international world order that America helped create, according to the Military Times.
America has stood idly by as China has built airstrips and military bases out of a series of rocky atolls in the Spratley Archipelago, preparing to flex its military muscle in the Pacific. China's increasingly aggressive behavior was on display last fall when a Chinese Navy ship nearly rammed the USS Decatur while it was carrying out a "freedom of operation" mission.
While the U.S. military has a presence in and around the South China Sea and the larger western Pacific Ocean, Inhofe said America largely watched China lay claim to its rocks and islets before turning other reefs into fortifications, brimming with arms and stockpiled with materiel.
Beijing’s ongoing expansion into the Spratly archipelago agitates neighboring nations and continues to challenge international law, an assertiveness the U.S. Navy attempts to check through routine freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs.
The days of absolute military dominance in the South China Sea have ended, Inhofe said. But strangely, many Americans don't seem to understand the magnitude of this shift - or its implications. With its One Belt, One Road initiative, debt diplomacy and other efforts, China has managed to pull some of the US's traditional allies away from its orbit, and closer to Beijing.
“It’s like you’re preparing for World War III,” Inhofe said. "You’re talking to our allies over there and you wonder whose side they’re going to be on."
Inhofe and other senators, as well as experts who testified before the committee, noted that the urgency of the Chinese threat against America and today’s world order may not be fully appreciated by U.S. citizens.
"I’m concerned our message is not getting across," said Inhofe, who took over the committee this month.
A military analyst quoted by the Military Times reinforced Inhofe's warning, saying that Americans should be prepared for long-term competition with China.
A fellow hand at CNAS, Ely Ratner, added that it’s important for Senators and all other Americans to know that Washington’s rocky relationship with China is neither "an episodic downturn” nor a problem that began with President Donald Trump and his administration’s policies.
Saying that the American people "should be preparing for long-term competition with China,” Ratner also warned Beijing’s support for embattled Venezuelan strongman Nicholas Maduro should be viewed as a sign of things to come.
"I think it’s a harbinger of what a China-led order would look like…in terms of protecting and defending non-democratic regimes and impeding the ability of the international community to galvanize and respond," said Ratner, a former deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.
“If we don’t get our act together in Asia, we’re going to see this movie over and over and over again throughout the developing world.”
Unsurprisingly, China wasn't thrilled with Inhofe's assessment; the editor of the English-language Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, accused the senator of having "mental problems."
When the Chinese hear such an idea, their reactions: 1. This Senator has mental problem. 2 He is seeking attention much like a radical internet troll. 3. There are problems with the American society that it produces such a nonsense-talking Senator. pic.twitter.com/6v5mmsmGQH— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) January 30, 2019
Beijing, which has repeatedly pushed back against the US's aggressive rhetoric by dismissing its warnings, will be just thrilled to hear from Inhofe, particularly on the day that the "high-level" trade talks between the two countries began.