Apparently Pres. Obama has learned a lesson from his lack of strategy in Syria: The Financial Times reports he has finally acceded to Sec. of Defense Ashton Carter’s pleas to assert freedom of the seas in Southeast Asia.
Within the next two weeks, senior American officials say, U.S. naval vessels will challenge Beijing’s claim to incorporate vast stretches of the South China Sea into its territorial waters.
The vessels will enter the 12-mile limit which Beijing has drawn along “the nine dot line”, its only claim to a group of coral shoals where it has been building at breakneck speed. During the past two years, the Chinese have scooped up enough mud and gravel to build thousands of acres on the several islands replete with military airstrips.
The new bases permit China to advance beyond the so-called first-island chain which has restricted its naval activities to occasional feints across the Strait to threaten the Taiwanese, and contest islands long claimed and occupied by Japan in the East China Sea.
These new bases, hundreds of miles from their Mainland ports and justified only with ancient maps showing vague Chinese claims could become important for projection of strategic power, already menacing nearby Philippines and Vietnam.
The White House has been reluctant to permit the Navy to exercise time-honored rights of passage in one of the world’s most important naval commercial waterways, whether recently because of the state visit just concluded of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, or a part of Obama’s general withdrawal of American power around the world. That lack of resolve has put into question former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton’s “pivot to Asia” which the Obama Administration has made part of its worldwide strategy.
It has been clear, however, that although there were glowingly optimistic statements anticipating the Xi visit, Obama got nowhere in negotiating any of the major issues which now confront the two countries. These include, of course, recent Chinese hacking of U.S. cybernetworks, violation of intellectual properties of American and other foreign companies, or other trade issues such as the manipulation of its currency [which Washington has refused to formally recognize, a flagrant example exercised on the eve of the visit with a Chinese devaluation.].
But no issue between the two countries has carried such dangerous longterm implications and possibilities of confrontation as Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. The move could be even more important – and fraught – than any of the red lines which Obama has drawn, and then violated, in Syria and the Mideast. Or as important as the growing aggressive behavior of Russia’s Valdimir Putin in Ukraine, and now, in Syria.
A successful test of traditional right of peaceful passage through international waters, in this case those which Beijing has unilaterally claimed as its own territory, is seen by most traditional naval scholars as something long overdue.
Today China’s elaborate and rapid efforts to create a “blue water” navy are still in their infancy. American spokesmen, including the highest echelons of the U.S. Navy, have in the past recognized that China has the right and as an emerging great power, would, build a modern naval fleet. At one point, an American admiral, noting the difficulties of building and maintaining aircraft carriers – China has rebuilt one bought from Ukraine and has another building – was something the U.S. might assist in for a “peacefully emerging China”.
But increasing signs of aggressive behavior by the Chinese have vitiated, at least for the time being, that kind of open military collaboration. And, in fact, Beijing has generally rejected the most routine military to military communication which has become normal and practical among the major powers in their effort to avoid untoward incidents.
Insisting , along with traditional U.S. allies in the region, that peaceful passage through international waters must be preserved and the valid claims of neighboring states honored, is, however much a risk now, one to be preferred than at a later time when Beijing’s resources will be greater and when dangerous precedents would be established.