Troubled Waters

Cliff May
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Posted: Jun 03, 2015 8:28 AM
Troubled Waters

“Creating facts on the ground” means changing reality through actions rather than diplomacy. China’s rulers have gone further: Over the last 18 months they have been creating ground: over 2,000 new acres of islands more than 600 miles from China’s coast, many built atop rocks and reefs claimed by their neighbors, including the Philippines, an important American ally. In recent days, the Chinese have been installing landing strips, helipads, harbors, radar installations, artillery pieces and other weapons.

What makes this real estate so valuable? Location, location, location. The South China Sea is home to some of the world’s busiest and most strategic shipping lanes, a rich fishing area, and possibly large undersea oil and natural gas reserves. China apparently intends to assert its sovereignty and control over all this --- and maybe over the airspace above as well. Just last week, a US Navy surveillance plane flying above the areas was told by the Chinese Navy to “Please go away …to avoid misunderstanding.” (The pilot did not comply.)

China’s neighbors are looking to the Obama administration for help. Addressing Asian leaders attending a meeting in Singapore last weekend, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called for “an immediate and lasting halt” to China’s activities. He added that the Chinese were “out of step” with international norms – a perhaps unfortunate reminder of Secretary of State John Kerry reproach to Russia’s Vladimir Putin last year for behaving “in 19th century fashion.” Mr. Carter also repeated what has become a favorite Obama administration shibboleth: “We all know there is no military solution.”

Actually, it’s not clear that the Chinese know that. Last week on CCTV, a Chinese government television station, commentator Han Bin said conflict was “inevitable” -- unless the US backs down regarding China’s artificial archipelago.

My instant analysis: The Chinese believe they can “win without fighting” (to quote the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu). They figure that a diplomatic solution will require, at most, giving “war-weary” Americans a face-saving way to back down. At the end of the day, the Obama administration will call whatever the Chinese agree to do -- or not do -- a good deal and, of course, the only alternative to war.

Any similarity between this scenario and the pattern followed during the long, drawn-out negotiations with Iran is not purely coincidental. America’s enemies and adversaries have been learning from that process, just as Iran earlier went to school on Washington’s failed negotiations with the despots who run North Korea (and who now possess nuclear weapons and are developing increasingly sophisticated missiles to deliver them to tantalizing targets).

One might argue that, at this fraught moment, the biggest fish we have to fry are not in the South China Sea. For President Obama to make that argument, however, would be difficult given his much vaunted “pivot to Asia” back in 2011. Skeptics saw that as a way for him to turn his back on the Middle East. But most foreign policy analysts gave the administration the benefit of the doubt. Scholar Kenneth Lieberthal, of the liberal Brookings Institution, said the White House was sending a message that the U.S. intended to “play a leadership role in Asia for decades to come.”

To fulfill that promise, Dr. Lieberthal emphasized, the president would need to “establish a strong and credible American presence across Asia to both encourage constructive Chinese behavior and to provide confidence to other countries in the region that they need not yield to potential Chinese regional hegemony.” So far, at least: mission not accomplished.

Once again, precedents will be set. Iran’s rulers have long claimed that the Strait of Hormuz -- the strategic passage from the Persian Gulf to open ocean, through which flows more than a third of the petroleum traded by sea – is not an international waterway but rather their territorial waters. In recent weeks they’ve been harassing international shipping in the strait to drive home the point.

Among the reasons they’re backing Houthi rebels in Yemen, I believe, is their desire also to control the Bab-el-Mandeb, the chokepoint for the Red Sea which leads north to Egypt’s Suez Canal. A grip on both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea would give Iran enormous power over much of the Middle East and considerable leverage over Europe.

The US Navy has the muscle to enforce international maritime law. The question is whether US political leaders have the will. Confidence has not been bolstered by plans to reduce America’s military budget by more than $1 trillion over the decade ahead. China’s military, though currently no match for that of the US, is likely to receive annual double-digit budget increases over the years ahead.

In 2010, at a regional meeting in Hanoi, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed America’s commitment to freedom of the seas. The U.S. she added, believes all maritime claims must be supported by claims to land features. China’s new waterfront properties meet that criterion – in a most audacious fashion.

Which reminds me: In his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” Mr. Obama mused: “I wonder, sometimes, whether men and women in fact are capable of learning from history.” His administration has more than six years of history to learn from -- and less than two years left to act upon that knowledge in Asia, the Middle East and other regions where America’s credibility is now seriously open to question.