WASHINGTON – The Obama administration does not have a stellar record either on national security issues or on upholding basic principles of international law. Just look at its retreat from Iraq, the tentative, in fact unserious air campaign against ISIS, and the near disaster in Afghanistan. Not to mention its passivity regarding Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions in Ukraine.
Freedom of navigation
Precisely because of this disappointing record, it is important to note Washington’s clear intention to affirm freedom of navigation in international waters in the South China Sea. This strong position on a matter of principle –protecting freedom of navigation– is a big deal. Indeed, if Obama is serious about upholding this cardinal principle of international law, this may put the US and China on a collision course.
Enter the US Navy
Today’s news is that the USS Lassen, a US Navy guided missile destroyer, openly and intentionally sailed within 12 miles off the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. The point was and is to challenge Beijing’s bogus claims that the islands belong to China and that no ships have the right to sail within what China claim to be its territorial waters.
What is the end game?
I applaud Washington’s move. But I am not sure that there is a clear end game here. The point of asserting freedom of navigation is that you have to keep doing it. One isolated gesture simply will not do it.
Since the Chinese will not unilaterally give up their “rights”, Beijing’s claims need to be voided by showing that they will not be enforced. And this means US and other vessels sailing through these waters claimed by China, routinely.
But this could become dangerous. What if the Chinese decide to react with force, claiming that this is only “self-defense” against an “American invasion”? Then, what next?
Let’s go back a bit. Here is the story. For the past few years, the Chinese have been busy occupying several reefs and disputed rocks spread around the South China Sea. They have simply taken them over, sometimes forcing out vessels belonging to other countries, like Vietnam. They have built these reefs up, including the construction of ports and runways that can accommodate military aircraft. And now they claim that these artificial islands are, and have always been an integral part of China’s territory.
On the basis of this most extraordinary claim based essentially on nothing, the Chinese Government also claims sovereignty on almost the entire South China Sea where these various reefs and rocks are located. Beijing’s contention is that China has exclusive sovereignty on the waters around its islands (a 12 mile radius). By the same token, Beijing states that it also has a much larger Exclusive Economic Zone around them.
According to international law, this would be indeed the case when we are talking about the coast line of a country, or real islands belonging to that country. The problem is that these are not real islands, and therefore they cannot be the basis for any territorial claims.
The additional problem is that, given the geography, there are other states that claim part of the those waters as their own. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and others have asserted that they should have control over at least some of the waters surrounding these rocks. And all the other parties agree that these territorial and maritime disputes should be settled through diplomacy and negotiations.
Well, the Chinese disagree. They have simply take over and established firm control over these rocks, turning them into Chinese islands.
Now, let’s look at the broader context. How could this happen? America used to be a super power with a large and unchallenged naval presence in the Pacific. Twenty or thirty years ago China would not have done this. But now it did.
Is this reckless behavior, or was it a calculated move? Did Beijing act unilaterally counting on Washington’s weakness and passivity? Certainly, when Chinese diplomats observe Washington’s tepid reactions vis-a-vis Putin’s open aggression in Ukraine, it is easy to conclude that America is in retreat. Hence an opportunity to grab stuff and expand Beijing military presence in a strategic area, without any fear of retribution.
But now (unexpectedly?) Washington is taking a stand. The Obama administration, through Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, declared that China’s claims are invalid, and against international law. Sending a US Navy ship close to islands that Beijing claims belong to China is a clear signal. Needless to say, Beijing loudly protested, accusing America of creating a crisis.
OK for now. But what about later? If the US Navy keeps doing this, Beijing may capitulate and give up its preposterous claims. Or it may not capitulate. It may instead decide to “do something” to assert them.
Well, you get the picture. You see where this can go. We are talking about a possible military escalation, with the possibility of Chinese and American vessels colliding, or even shooting at each other.
China cannot retreat
If the Chinese simply miscalculated, if they engaged in this significant build-up in the South China Sea on the assumption that a weak America would do nothing, then we may have a real problem. Having gone this far, China cannot simply quietly retreat, and pretend that nothing ever happened. Talk about “losing face”.
But if America is serious about asserting freedom of navigation in what are indeed international waters, then we may get into unknown territory. America still has an impressive Navy. But not as impressive as it used to be. Besides, the action is taking place close to China. And this gives beefed up Chinese naval forces an inherent tactical advantage.
This may get ugly
As of now, military clashes, (let alone a real war), between the US and China are a pretty remote possibility. But when you have two navies with orders to challenge each other because governments have to stick to their script, sparks may fly.
Stay tuned, because this may get a lot worse.