WASHINGTON – China decided that America is in a (probably irreversible) phase of global retreat. Whatever the rhetoric about a pivot to Asia, most likely aimed at containing China’s rising power, America is in fact pulling back.
Based on this assessment, Beijing ordered the ramping up of construction activities on various islands in the South China Sea, with the obvious goal of creating a permanent claim on these rocks, this way extending its territorial waters so that they would include almost the entire South China Sea.
Indeed, it should be noted that while China has built about 2,000 acres of new land mass, 1,500 has been built since January 2015. This sudden alacrity would indicate that Beijing decided to ramp up the program, this way creating irreversible changes on the ground as fast as possible, after it concluded that the Obama Administration would do nothing in reaction to this flagrant violation of international law.
The US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, while in Hawaii publicly stated that the US does not recognize China’s sovereignty over these disputed rocks and that America will continue to treat the sea lanes around them and the air space above them as international waters and air space open to all.
Strong statement, no doubt. But it remains to be seen how far is Washington willing to push. China has declared that its sovereignty over the islands is proven, and therefore non negotiable. Based on this legally founded claim, China is free to do whatever it pleases in these islands, including building air strips and possibly other military facilities.
So, here is the situation. China openly engages in behavior contrary to international law, with the obvious goal of extending its sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea. The US complains. China replies that the US has no ground for complaining, and that it should stay out of its sovereign waters and air space in order to avoid unpleasant developments. Then what happens?
I suspect that nothing significant will happen. I cannot believe that (whatever action Secretary Carter may have in his own mind) President Obama, now getting close to his political exit, has any appetite to leave the presidency with America in the midst of a nasty political confrontation, or worse, with China.
America will do nothing
So, here is the thing. Arguing that China is misbehaving is one thing. Doing something about it is something entirely different. And we have seen this before. The Obama Administration loudly complained that Putin’s annexation of Crimea was and is illegal. Indeed, officially the US still contends that Crimea should be handed back to Ukraine. But it is obvious that Washington will do nothing really meaningful to force Putin to comply.
End of the American Century
And here is the obvious lesson for all China’s neighbors coming out of this “construction on the rocks” crisis. The American Century is over. The much heralded pivot to Asia, just like other major US foreign policy moves announced by this US Administration, was at best an aspiration, at worst a half backed plan that lacked even the most modest military underpinnings that would make it credible.
China noted all this. And now, taking advantage of America’s de facto retreat, China has taken over the Spratly islands and other assorted rocks in the South China Sea, and it will not let go of any of them, whatever Washington, Manila or Hanoi may say.
With this clever move Beijing just extended its sphere of influence, signaling to all its neighbors that they better adjust, since America will not lift a finger to help them.