When considering unprecedented Chinese island-building in the South China Sea, you might say that Team Obama has put itself quite literally between a “rocky outcrop” and a hard place on what to do about it.
Indeed, it’s possible, based on Pentagon winks and nudges, that Washington could soon sail a warship within 12 miles of one of China’s new “features” in the Spratly Islands, challenging what Beijing calls its sovereign territory and security.
Months of seeming policy paralysis and China-linked high-viz events (such as the Iran nuclear deal and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit) have put the administration in a tough spot about what to do about Chinese sea-bed shifting projects.
As you recall, Beijing claims 80 percent (or 1 million square miles) of the South China Sea as “indisputable” Chinese territory. It has been dotting that sea with man-made “islands” atop coral reefs and shoals over the past few years.
Assuming more of the same, the sea could become a “Chinese lake,” if Beijing’s actions are unopposed.
That’s a potential problem since more than $5 trillion annually — or 30 percent — of global seaborne commerce now travels through the South China Sea; $1 trillion of that is American.
While China trumpets its “good intentions,” evidenced by the building of two (anachronistic) lighthouses on the islands as navigational aids, they’ve also reportedly begun outfitting the islands with support facilities such as ports.
In addition to a 10,000-foot, military-suitable runway on Fiery Cross Reef, U.S. Pacific Command chief, Adm. “Harry” Harris, insists Beijing is also building “revetted” (that is, reinforced) hangars for fighter aircraft.
In other words, militarizing the islands seems certain.
Of course, since China says that the sea, delineated by a mysterious 9-dash line on its maps, is Beijing’s (including oil/natural gas deposits and fisheries), there’s no telling where or when China might end its man-made island program.
Or what it might do with sovereignty over that sea.
If Washington doesn’t sail through the waters of these outposts of Chinese expansionism to refute Beijing’s claims of sovereignty and assert freedom of the seas, it could mean that China will put a hammerlock on its (specious) claims by default.
Exercising international rights of navigation is important for a raft of reasons, including how Asian allies and partners — indeed, global allies — view us, as well as sending a strong signal China’s way about its conduct in the South China Sea and the threat it poses to our interests.
Of course, with the Chinese Communist Party having invested money in, expressed pride about and stoked nationalism in these projects, Beijing isn’t happy about the hinted-at challenge in the Spratly Islands — and has vowed to respond.
A U.S. FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) could be met with shrill Chinese rhetoric, tactical warnings, harassment or a collision at sea, a diplomatic crisis, a minor military clash or a more substantive conflict. It could also encourage China to build even more outposts.
But the greater risk is doing nothing.
Having waited years to address the issue, and possibly continuing to wait — as this White House does on so many foreign policy matters — doesn’t make it any easier. Indeed this waiting game has made it much more difficult and more dangerous.
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