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Chinese officers monitor  the South China Sea
Chinese officers monitor the South China Sea
Andrej Mrevlje

At 6 a.m. on Feb. 18, 2001, the roar of the engines from 12 Russian-built SU-27s ripped through Vietnamese airspace. Within minutes, burning phosphorus, shrapnel and delayed-reaction mines were falling on Vietnam's main naval base. Operation Dragon Strike had begun. An hour later, a Chinese M-17 troop transport helicopter fired warning shots while six fiberglass raiding crafts, powered by twin 150 horsepower engines, sped towards Discovery Reef in the Spratly Islands, where 30 Vietnamese workers were busy testing oil wells due to start the production in April. Within a few hours, the Far East was at war. The world was in crisis. Four days later, American Satellites detected Chinese nuclear missiles being prepared for launch.

This is a summary of Dragonstrike, a novel published in 1997, predicting that China would strike and create the world havoc. Humphrey Hawksley and Simon Holberton, two accomplished British journalists, penned the scenario based on the knowledge they had gained after years of reporting from China. At that time, Chinese nationalism and saber rattling were still more tied up with spurring on the national economy and supporting its political leaders than actual military capacity to do harm. Nevertheless, to feed the masses with ever higher doses of patriotism, in spring 1996, the People's Liberation Army conducted a huge military exercise along China's eastern coast, while pointing hundreds of missiles towards Taiwan. The maneuvers were orchestrated to demonstrate the strength and determination of the proud Chinese people and to show off for the "voters" of the Communist Party.

Pointed missiles

The message of the propaganda was clear: Beijing could invade and "liberate" Taiwan any time it wanted. In reality, it could not. Most international military experts at the time agreed that, yes, China could launch some missiles towards the island, but their navy had no capacity to carry out the complex logistic operation needed for invasion. Besides, Taiwan, which had for a long time been run by a military regime, had a pretty solid national defense system and it was supplied with U.S. weapons.

With domestic discontent growing, China was adept at focusing attention elsewhere.

And pointing missiles against Taiwan was not the only distraction orchestrated by the corrupt and then-disunited Chinese government. Humiliated by American-NATO expansionism in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and facing down international criticism for the 1989 slaughter of students in Tiananmen Square, China attempted to boost national morale by celebrating what it billed as a couple of geopolitical home runs. In 1997, through a deal that had been brokered in 1984, Hong Kong returned to Chinese control after a hundred years of colonial British rule. China celebrated the reintegration of Hong Kong with more ardor than the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. Two years later, the Motherland embraced another lost child, Macao, a former Portuguese colony. This event, too, was celebrated with fireworks and patriotic jubilation all over the country.

The events of that era —Hong Kong, Macao, and the threats towards Taiwan — were mostly PR operations. They were all a celebration of symbolic expansionism, at that time based on words and noise, not facts. But they set a tone that played well with the population — one that was sold on the narrative of their country's destiny to expand and conquer its immediate environs.

It was at that time that the Spratly Islands came onto the agenda and made it into the British correspondents' book. Geographically, the Spratly are a group of tiny, till recently mostly uninhabited islands in no-man's — or everyman's — land in the middle of the South China Sea, not particularly close to any country. Luckily, the war predicted in Dragonstrike was not likely to come true. But nearly 20 years later, the situation has changed in ways that make the fictional Armageddon more plausible.

China has grown exponentially. Its leadership is united and coherent in implementing plans for regional control, which it sees as being at the core of its national interest. In fact, China is smartly poised to become the world's next superpower: its economy is growing rapidly; its military is modernizing, adopting strategies of warfare; and its leaders have consolidated the chain of power. Beijing's former strongman Deng Xiaoping had allowed the People's Liberation Army to dabble in business, becoming an economic power center in its own right. The new leader, Xi Jinping, understood that without firm control over the country's army, he could not run the country. So he stripped the People's Liberation Army of its corrupt businesses, and in exchange provided it with modern weapons and technology. Unlike the grand displays of the 1990s, these are real-world tools that China has used to project power.

So today when China lays claims to the Spratly Islands and makes moves to expand its presence there, it may be more the stuff of fact than fiction — a real omen of larger conflict to come.

While China is knocking at the door of the world to expand its power, the West — and especially the U.S. — is not ready to hand over the keys. China has caught the West's attention by expanding the surface of minuscule islands in the Spratlys, pumping sand from under the ocean and building airstrips and military structures on the newly expanded islands. The process is known as "land reclamation," and is part of regular practice to expand the surface of small reefs and archipelagos.

CNN plot twist

A month ago in the Philippines, the U.S. Navy loaded a crew from CNN on to a super spy plane called the Poseidon 8 and took them on a ride-along to the Spratly islands. The P-8 is an impressive military machine, capable of conducting anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare, as well as collecting electronic signals for intelligence. But this particular mission was devoted to filming the fast-growing artificial islets that the Chinese have been building for the last couple of years on the Spratly Islands — and showing the footage to the American public. In alarming tones, CNN presented the developments as breaking news, almost calling for blood in response. It made for good TV, as CNN recorded calls from the Chinese Navy ordering the P-8 to leave.

There was footage of small reefs turned into construction sites that were slowly growing into artificial islets — they were surely destined to become mini naval bases. The CNN report garnered international attention, but the most important audience was the Asian leaders meeting in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore for two important meetings — meetings that also included China and the U.S.

When, a few days later, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter spoke at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore, he used a tone similar to CNN's. Reuters reported on his speech late last month:

"‘It's true that almost all the nations that claim parts of the South China Sea have developed outposts over the years … of differing scope and degree, Carter said. "In the Spratly Islands, Vietnam has 48 outposts; the Plilippines, eight; Malasya, five, Taiwan, one. Yet one country is moving much farther and much faster than any other. And that's China."

Carter also expressed concern about the further militarization of the zone, and confirmed that the United States will continue to protect freedom of navigation and overflight of the area.

China appeared unfazed by the remarks. Zhao Xiaozhou, a Chinese colonel, said Mr. Carter, ‘wasn't as tough as I expected'." For the time being, nobody is backing down.

Today, 20 years after the first Spratly crisis, the U.S. and China are both grandstanding for their domestic constituencies. But the biggest difference from the era of Dragonstrikeis that China and the U.S., now both real powers, are actually negotiating with each other. That's potentially good news. The language is still a bit rough, and it occasionally evokes gestures and moves from the times of the Cold War. But there is no doubt that both countries are studying and signaling to each other, learning how to negotiate. And that, hopefully, will keep Dragonstrike in the realm of fiction.

A longer version of this article first appeared at Yonder.

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