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Hands Off ADIZ Islands
Obama Mulls Sending Ships to South China Sea

The Obama Administration is set to make some bold moves in Asia, if the Wall Street Journal‘s sources prove to be reliable:

The U.S. military is considering using aircraft and Navy ships to directly contest Chinese territorial claims to a chain of rapidly expanding artificial islands, U.S. officials said, in a move that would raise the stakes in a regional showdown over who controls disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has asked his staff to look at options that include flying Navy surveillance aircraft over the islands and sending U.S. naval ships to well within 12 nautical miles of reefs that have been built up and claimed by the Chinese in an area known as the Spratly Islands.

Such moves, if approved by the White House, would send a message to Beijing that the U.S. won’t accede to Chinese territorial claims to the man-made islands in what the U.S. considers to be international waters and airspace.

This is probably the first round of escalating warnings from the Obama Administration to the Chinese: stand down, or else we will send in the Navy. The Journal cites multiple sources for the story, indicating that it’s probably not an undisciplined leak, but rather an option being floated purposely so the Chinese will take note. The wiggle room lies in the part about White House approval being necessary; if China backs down, in other words, the White House will make these plans just go away.

China has been testing the waters (literally and figuratively) to see how far it can go and what it can get away with. Apparently, when the strategy of attacking opponents’ ships and placing oil rigs in disputed territory proved to be too costly, China took note and backed off somewhat, at least temporarily. Now, in its push to build a string of artificial islands that can both serve as bases and give validity to its claims to be effectively in control of the territory, it may have run up against another wall.

All eyes are on Beijing. It has most certainly been watching closely to see how the United States has comported itself in Ukraine and the Middle East. Now the question becomes: How much do they want to test this Administration?

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  • Nevis07

    If the Obama administration were serious about letting China know that it’s behavior were unacceptable, it simply would not have leaked the would-be policy change, it would have actually instituted and made public the changes. Obama’s bluff has been called so many times in the last several years that nobody takes him seriously anymore. This is the primary danger that constantly weak foreign policy leads to and what liberals get wrong on foreign policy all of the time. They think if you act nice, everyone will be nice to you in return, but that’s not real politik. In reality, it puts you and the world in danger.

    Now, we find ourselves in a situation where we’re finding increasingly unacceptable policy behavior in Beijing and by leaking a ‘possible’ change in military posture, we basically are increasing the risk of miscalculation by China whether we institute the change or not. It increases danger because – let’s be honest, nobody expect Obama to actually make this policy change and if he did, China would want to call his bluff on it (and if China fires on a US surveillance plane, then as president you have to be willing to go to the next level in response, but is Obama really willing to??); it also increases danger in the longer-term because if he doesn’t actually institute the policy change he would green light even more aggressive behavior by China and eventually there will be a red line that cannot be crossed but China is unsure of what the real red line is, because we have a president that doesn’t stick by his word…

    In other words, Obama is playing with fire. America need actions, not words anymore. Obama is putting American lives at risk every time he turns away. American interests are being challenged all over the world because our legitimacy is being called into question from every direction. Another thing – every time Obama pulls another foreign policy head in the sand dance, he makes it more difficult for the next administration (democrat or republican) to reverse those policies and you never want to restrict your future options as a nation-state. I actually have some sympathy for Obama – he’s been given some not so great options in foreign policy during his tenure, but the reality is that he’s the country a great disservice with his ‘don’t do anything stupid’ foreign policy rule.

    • Kevin

      I often wonder about the intersection between the Reagan and Obama administrations’ domestic and foreign policies and how strikingly different lessons have been drawn by foreign adversaries from each administration’s domestic policies. It is often said that Reagan’s firing the striking PATCO air traffic controllers was a risky gamble (the administration would have been crucified if a plane crashed) and that the Sviets thought it meant the administration would also be bold in a foreign policy crisis rather than folding under pressure. However, Obama has also been quite tough and ruthless in domestic politics (although perhaps not running any high stakes life and death gambles like PATCO) but no one seems to believes this ruthless aggressiveness towards domestic enemies will carry over into foreign policy.

      Why? Has Obama effectively signaled that he doesn’t really bring the same competitive desire to crush his enemies to the foreign policy sphere? Or has dithering (over Syrian redlines, etc.) undermined whatever reputation all gains his tough domestic policy might have provided to his foreign policy?

  • Dan Greene

    “The U.S. military is considering using aircraft and Navy ships to directly contest Chinese territorial claims to a chain of rapidly expanding artificial islands, U.S. officials said, in a move that would raise the stakes in a regional showdown over who controls disputed waters in the South China Sea.”

    Frankly, I doubt it. But the real question here is what is our argument? That creating artificial islands is illegal? Or what? What is it that the US Navy would do–attack those building these islands? I agree that the leak is deliberate, but some analysis of potential US courses of action and the overall legal context would have been nice.

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