After much too much time elapsed the Obama Administration acceded to U.S. Navy urgings to challenge Beijing’s capacity to block of one of the world’s most important naval arteries. Beijing has chosen vague 1947 maps of the South China Sea in an attempt to extend its territorial waters to reefs lying athwart one of the world’s most important seaways, carrying cargo between East Asia and South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Indeed, the oil traffic alone from the Mideast to East Asia – China included — is one of the world’s industrial lifelines.
On Oct. 27th the Pentagon finally acknowledged the seriousness of the problem by sending a guided missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, through the contested waters. Ian Storey, a strategic analyst at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies, told the Guardian newspaper: “They’ve gone in heavy. There is not much else heavier than that except an aircraft carrier.” In fact, the US navy has two aircraft carriers in the region, shifted out of the Mideast as part of former Sec. Hillary Clinton’s “pivot to Asia. The USS Theodore Roosevelt only recently left the Middle East [now without a U.S. supercarrier] to resupply in Singapore, adjacent to the South China Sea, and the USS Ronald Reagan, is based in Japan. Perhaps a whole aircraft carrier with all its ancillary ships would overdo the effort.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the “Freedom of Action” operations would continue. “We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits,” he declared. “There have been naval operations in that region in recent days and there will be more in the weeks and months to come
We would have preferred that the Secretary put on record the exact passage details. Leaving the issue to confirmation of news accounts strikes us as a little ridiculous since the whole idea was to openly assert what the U.S. considers international law which it has upheld since the earliest days of the Republic. It was, after all, the attacks against international shipping which persuaded our third president Pres. Thomas Jefferson – after a decade of fruitless talk with the European naval powers to take a united stand – to send American Marines in our first foreign military intervention in the early 1800s. And that was a Jefferson who earlier in his career had opposed a standing military!
China said it “shadowed and warned” the USS Lassen off — sending the missile destroyer Lanzhou and patrol vessel Taizhou to the area — and called the U.S. action illegal. China Central Television reported Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui told U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus that the U.S. should “cherish the hard-won momentum of development” in ties.
China’s reclamation as of June had created 2,900 acres, according to the Pentagon. Beijing contends it is building airstrips for civilian purposes but it has already installed artillery. There is concern Beijing may declare an air defense identification zone [ADIZ)] over these waters as it has in the East China Sea facing Japan, an action rejected by Tokyo and other powers but largely now respected by foreign aircraft flying in the region.
. As Storey said, now, another step is required: “U.S. credibility is on the line here. Countries have been watching very closely. It can’t be a one-off, symbolic sail past these features. It has to be conducted on a regular basis.” Washington must continue to assert a presence within the 12-mile area that Chinese aggression has claimed. Hopefully that will come quickly with more ships, and perhaps aircraft, and not take the months of intra-Administration debate which have permitted the Chinese to create a growing presence more than a thousand miles from their Mainland.
News reports say the Australian government, too, is now considering sending some of its warships and perhaps aircraft through the area. We hope that Washington is encouraging this initiative. And we hope it is also urging other parties – particularly the Philippines which has counter claims to the original shoals on which the Chinese have built – to do the same. The broadest possible coalition of our friends in the area, and the European allies, to demonstrate this confirmation of the freedom of the seas is absolutely essential.