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November 10, 2015 7:40 am

Is Obama Prepared to Confront Beijing on South China Sea?

avatar by John Bolton

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President Barack Obama. Photo:

President Barack Obama. Photo:

The Navy’s recent deployment of the destroyer USS Lassen on a “freedom of navigation” exercise in the South China Sea demonstrated that America does not accept Chinese territorial claims in those waters. Long overdue, but better late than never, the Lassen’s voyage hopefully augurs more to come to safeguard the international waters and rights of “innocent passage” through which nearly one-half of the world’s ocean commerce flows.

Nonetheless, this single mission does not yet evidence either a well-conceived US strategy or the resolve necessary for a sustained effort to prevent Beijing from effectively annexing this vital, sharply contested region. China is not creating “facts on the ground,” as diplomats like to say, but is literally creating the ground itself, using small surfaces above the water to build new islands, essentially to serve as naval and air bases for Beijing’s military.

In short, China is engaged in military conquest, establishing its “sovereignty” through force over what are now international waters around the South China Sea’s small islands, reefs and shoals. Within its famous “nine-dash line” — a sweeping curve that runs close to the Vietnamese and Philippine coasts — China seems totally impervious to worldwide diplomatic complaints.

And why not? Only the United States can effectively deter or prevent China from working its will. And until the Lassen’s mission, it had done precious little. The Obama administration’s plaintive calls for the peaceful, negotiated resolution of the many overlapping territorial claims were less a policy than a call to prayer, as Beijing well understood.

Not only did Obama essentially ignore China’s adventurism, his “pivot” of America’s attention from the Middle East to Asia has been proven hollow. It was, in fact, more a diplomatic pirouette than a change in strategy, yet another Obama exercise in rhetoric and self-regard.

Rather than being reassured, East Asian countries have grown increasingly concerned that China can act at will in the South China Sea and across the region. Since almost all the oil and natural gas consumed by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan transits the South China Sea, we and they have vital interests in preventing these waters from becoming a Chinese lake. China’s naval capabilities have already steadily increased, providing the military muscle to enforce its wishes over these vital lines of commerce and communication. Add uncontested Chinese sovereignty to the mix — and the attendant legal authority to control shipping through its territorial waters — and Beijing would have its hands around the throats of East Asia’s key economies and many others.

One lone freedom-of-navigation mission has put this issue to rest. China harshly criticized the Lassen‘s presence, tacitly threatening to respond forcefully to future “incursions.” Undoubtedly, the Pentagon has thought through an “escalation ladder” to meet aggressive Chinese responses to future missions, such as Chinese ships sailing perilously close to US warships, cutting them off, bumping them, firing warning shots and the like.

But is Obama prepared for what might come next? Does he fully understand that his weakness in the Middle East and Eastern Europe has been widely noted in Asia? Does he see that drastic Pentagon budget cuts have left the Navy less equipped to keep the world’s seas open and free of danger than when he took office? And is he personally committed to the potentially risky brinkmanship necessary to convince China we will increase the pressure if its efforts at territorial aggrandizement continue at the expense of international peace and security?

The United States now literally is in dangerous waters because China believes it can act with impunity to make its extravagant territorial claims a new reality. This is the visible proof that when America’s laboriously built structures of deterrence break down, trouble follows. Contrary to Obama’s fantasy that American strength is provocative to potential adversaries, the South China Sea is proving, under virtually scientific laboratory conditions, that what is provocative is American weakness.

Secretary of State John Kerry seems similarly oblivious of the deteriorating geopolitical environment in Asia. His involvement has been even less visible than Obama’s. Freedom of navigation missions must be accompanied by vigorous, assertive US diplomacy, obtaining new basing rights in Vietnam and the Philippines, for example, and rallying the region to unify against the Chinese threat.

We have far more tools in our possession than military ones, including economic pressure. And we must simultaneously deal with ongoing — perhaps increasing — Chinese cyberwarfare against the US government and private companies. China’s aggressiveness is not confined to the South China Sea.

And where are the Republican presidential candidates? Who among them will proclaim the vital US interests in keeping China’s nine-dash line an academic curiosity and insist on spending what it takes to restore the Navy’s reach and power? Those who seize this issue and explain its clear significance to American voters should be the real finalists at next year’s GOP nominating convention in Cleveland.

This article was originally published by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

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