Does the United States have two foreign policies, one out of the White House, and the other out of The Pentagon – or, thinking about it, maybe another third one out of the State Department?
That’s about the only conclusion you can draw from a recent exchange over an episode in the South China Sea.
It’s no secret that the Chinese are building military bases a thousand miles south of their Mainland territory, right straight athwart one of the most important sea highways of the world. It is the one that carries $5 trillion worth of manufacturing and raw materials on a supply line for not only China but Japan and South Korea, including oil from the Middle East. They are doing it even when they have to dredge up more coral for shoals that barely are above the water line, especially in these days of reportedly rising sea level.
On the other hand, freedom of navigation, freedom of the seas, freedom of international waters, has been an American institution even before our country won its independence from Britain. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams literally spent years trying unsuccessfully to get the European powers together to halt piracy in the Mediterranean. And it was as our second president, Jefferson, much against his previous prejudices against a standing military force and foreign interventions, who after all sent our first troops abroad. They went to North Africa, then the Barbary Coast, to halt the boarding, kidnapping and ransoming of American ships and their sailors. Remember: “xxx from halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli xxx” was not some idle ditty.
When we heard that our ageing [50 years now] B52 bombers were sent lumbering over the new Chinese bases, we assumed they were taking the advice of many of us and challenging Beijing’s effort to throw up a block to world shipping. But now comes Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright with a statement that the Dec. 10 mission was not a “freedom of navigation” operation and that there was “no intention of flying within 12 nautical miles of any feature,” nhinting that the mission may have strayed off course.
“The United States routinely conducts B-52 training missions throughout the region, including over the South China Sea,” Wright said in an email to The Associated Press. “These missions are designed to maintain readiness and demonstrate our commitment to fly, sail and operate anywhere allowed under international law.”
Wright said the U.S. was “looking into the matter.”
The announcement leaves everyone including us in a complete quandary.
First of all, do B52s – sometimes armed with nuclear weapons – stray off course in this day and age of super-GPS [Global Position System]? If so, not only their pilots and navigators need to be brought up on charges but so do the commanding officers, whether they be in Pearl or in Arlington.
Secondly, we had assumed that the “straying” B-52s were another effort to tell the Chinese in no uncertain terms that we would not permit the challenging of the right of freedom of the seas in international waters which they have declared unilaterally. They are, incidentally, stepping on the toes of the Filipinos and others who have claims to those shoals because they are in their territorial waters or zones of economic exploitation.
If this assumption is correct, why in the name of all that is holy in nautical strategy would you not maintain openly and loudly that you are challenging the Chinese! Beijing, sensing some ambiguity in Washington, was already ready, of course, with a protest over the overlights and making new threats The answer to that protest is a public statement reiterating our right to fly through the area because it is in international waters, and not Chinese territory as Beijing claims.
Who’s running this show, anyway? Or is our Helmsman missing altogether?