Time for America to Step Up in the South China Sea
America’s challenge to China’s unilateral claims to the international waterways of the South China Sea is long overdue. Chinese strategists have repeatedly told foreign observers that they believe Beijing has a strategic window — until U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office and before a new president adopts a tougher approach — in which to assert their exceptional claims in maritime Asia. During his current visit to Southeast Asia for regional summits, President Obama should make clear that Chinese coercion to revise Asia’s established order will not succeed on his watch, and deploy more elements of America’s diplomatic and military toolkit to match his words with action.
After years of lobbying by the American military to undertake freedom-of-navigation operations within what China claims to be its territorial waters, the White House finally consented in October to a symbolic show of force that saw a U.S. destroyer sail within 12 miles of a Chinese construction on a reef in the South China Sea. But even that deployment sent mixed messagesto both Beijing and America’s Asian allies, as reports circulate that the U.S. Navy invoked “innocent passage,” tacitly recognizing China’s sovereignty over waters around its artificial islets. Such a softly-softly approach is unlikely to alter Beijing’s game plan.
In fact, China has more to lose in any military confrontation than does the United States. America is richer, more powerful, has more allies, and enjoys a more resilient political regime than that monopolized by the Chinese Communist Party. President Xi Jinping must know that a foreign conflict could unleash the kind of nationalism within China that could ultimately target his regime itself; after all, this is how previous dynasties have fallen.