WASHINGTON – In response to China’s totally preposterous sovereignty claims over the entire South China Sea, the US sent a P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Challenging illegal behavior
When the Chinese military ordered the US plane to leave what it claims to be its airspace, the US responded that it was free to fly through what international law defines as international air space.
So far, so good. It is obviously a good thing for the United States to challenge through this flight China’s illegal claims. But this is not enough. The Chinese protested. They pointed out that this American challenge to their sovereign air space may turn ugly. If the US insists in this reckless Behavior –Beijing argued– bad things might happen.
So, what will Washington do next? Back off in order to avoid “provoking a crisis”? This would signal the world that China won. It is obvious that China has no legitimate claim over the entire South China Sea. Its assertion that all the islands and rocks belong to mainland China and that therefore its territorial waters go as far as Borneo and the Philippines is laughable. Except that China is not laughing, while its beefed up naval power is strong enough to intimidate all the other smaller countries in the region, (Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines).
Will the US risk a real crisis?
The only real naval power that can challenge Beijing is America. Having said that, flying one single mission over the Spratly Islands does not mean much. A true demonstration of resolve would be to fly 10 missions, 20 missions, every day. But this would entail accepting the risk of escalation.
What if some crazy Chinese local commander decides to shoot down a US plane? This might happen. And then what? Is Washington going to go to war with China in order to preserve the freedom of navigation in international waters, in this case the South China Sea? Probably not.
China does not believe that the US will do much
In another era China would not have made these baseless territorial waters claims, with the risk of attracting ill will. Beijing would not have done this.
But now it is different. Now the Chinese have had the opportunity to measure America’s resolve, or lack thereof. Washington has done nothing significant against Putin’s Russia after it gobbled Crimea. The Obama Administration looked on passively as ISIL took over a big chunk of Iraq, a country in which the US spent about a trillion dollars and where we lost thousands of US soldiers.
It is therefore fairly rational for China’s leaders to assume that, just like other aggressors, they can get away with their totally transparent neighborhood bully aggression. America will protest a bit, and then it will do nothing.
What will Washington do?
But if the Chinese are dead wrong in assuming US passivity, what does America intend to do about this crisis? China is busy building air strips and other military installations on various rocks in the South China Sea, with the open objective of claiming this vast body of water as its own. What will this US Administration do to make them stop? Flying one single Poseidon mission (or may be two or three) over these islands is not an indication of resolve.
No victory until China gives up its claims
In this case there will be no victory until China, explicitly or implicitly, gives up its fabricated sovereignty claims over almost the entire South China Sea. And I do not see this happening. I do not see China quietly backing off, in fear of a US retaliation.
The Chinese were not deterred by US naval or air power when they decided to start their construction activities on those islands. Why should they stop now, when they are close to having transformed the facts on the ground by establishing a permanent military presence on what used to be uninhabited rocks?
American power does not deter anymore
So far, I see nothing in Washington’s modest reactions to this openly illegal behavior that will make China stop. It will take more than one Poseidon flight to reverse this course of action that signals China’s openly aggressive behavior in its neighborhood.
There was a time in which America’s overwhelming military power, combined with the willingness to use it, deterred aggression. Now, this is not working anymore. We still have considerable power. The problem is the willingness to use it.