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Game of Thrones
No Strategy in the South China Sea

Apparently spooked by Beijing’s claims of exclusion zones around newly-built artificial islands and the prospect of a Chinese ADIZ over the area, the U.S. has recently upped its resistance to China’s territorial aggression in the South China Sea. American officials are talking tough and Washington is sailing ships and flying planes on “freedom of navigation missions” through what China now sees as its own sovereign territory (despite the unequivocal wording of the China-signed UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). China’s actions have been pushing neighbors into a sort of coalition, and U.S. backing is a key factor in making that coalition strong enough to make China think twice about stirring up trouble in Asian coastal waters.

But the story isn’t quite as simple as all that. For one thing, China’s territorial opponents are also its economic allies, and governments from Manila to Hanoi to Canberra to, yes, Washington have to consider economic and territorial/security interests as they form their China policies. The FT reports that countries, in light of the new U.S. stance, don’t want to choose between the U.S. and economic relations with China. Moreover, China is not the only country in the area pursuing land reclamation—and the U.S. stance towards China’s efforts risks raising questions about other countries’ projects.

The FT article, then, points to something ominous: The rest of the world is watching events in the South China Sea, and many thoughtful and experienced observers are concluding that the Obama administration has gotten ahead of itself with its attempts to stand up to China and lacks a strategy. What does the U.S. do if China doesn’t think America’s threats are credible? Is Washington’s stronger stance on China writing checks that there isn’t enough domestic U.S. political will to cash? And what if the deep historical divides and the differences in interests among the emerging regional coalition keep it from wielding its collective power effectively?

These are all questions that the U.S. needs answers to in terms of a strategy for East Asia. We can hope that behind the scenes the White House is preparing an effective response, and it appears that both public and elite opinion seem concerned enough about China that leadership will draw support. But the appearance of being, as the FT says, ‘on the back foot’ in Asia isn’t good for an administration already bedeviled by doubts about its grasp of global power realities.

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  • rheddles

    Why should the South China Sea be different?

  • Anthony

    “Unfortunately, there is no magic formula or technique that will guarantee or facilitate the transition to a new security enviornment based on a stable balance of power. It will require courageous and farsighted leadership in all relevant capitals, some significant risk taking (especially in the domestic political arena), and highly effective diplomacy. But the alternative, involving current attempts to sustain American predominance in the Western Pacific while muddling through by managing various frictions with Beijing in a piecemeal and incremental manner and cooperating where possible, will likely prove disastrous. And a much-delayed attempt to transition to a more stable balance, perhaps as a result of a clear failure of the existing strategy, will simply make the process more difficult.”

  • Dan Greene

    We have two basic choices. We can either deliberately create the pretext for a preemptive war while we are still technologically dominant or we can lay the groundwork for a multipolar world in which China is a peer in ever sense (not a junior partner) which means conceding dominance in the Western Pacific to them. Currently, we are deluding ourselves that there is some middle way. As we ineffectually pursue that middle way, we are alienating China without eliminating the challenge they pose. Meanwhile, the day when the dollar is no longer the sole world reserve currency draws gradually nearer, our military dominance slowly erodes, and we are ping-ponging back and forth between the Middle East, Russia and China.

    Right now, we are on course for disaster. Not tomorrow or the day after, but somewhere out there.

  • Dan Greene

    Here’s some actual analysis of this topic rather than the TAI mix of alternating panic and cheerleading. Truly excellent article:

    “For even the greatest of empires, geography is often destiny. You wouldn’t know it in Washington, though. America’s political, national security, and foreign policy elites continue to ignore the basics of geopolitics that have shaped the fate of world empires for the past 500 years. Consequently, they have missed the significance of the rapid global changes in Eurasia that are in the process of undermining the grand strategy for world dominion that Washington has pursued these past seven decades…

    “After decades of quiet preparation, Beijing has recently begun revealing its grand strategy for global power, move by careful move. Its two-step plan is designed to build a transcontinental infrastructure for the economic integration of the world island from within, while mobilizing military forces to surgically slice through Washington’s encircling containment. The initial step has involved a breathtaking project to put in place an infrastructure for the continent’s economic integration. By laying down an elaborate and enormously expensive network of high-speed, high-volume railroads as well as oil and natural gas pipelines across the vast breadth of Eurasia, China may realize Mackinder’s vision in a new way. For the first time in history, the rapid transcontinental movement of critical cargo — oil, minerals, and manufactured goods — will be possible on a massive scale, thereby potentially unifying that vast landmass into a single economic zone stretching 6,500 miles from Shanghai to Madrid. In this way, the leadership in Beijing hopes to shift the locus of geopolitical power away from the maritime periphery and deep into the continent’s heartland.”

    • Anthony

      Good read Dan thanks for sharing.

  • ltlee1

    Freedom of navigation is a red herring. Obama had tuned down the combative rhetoric over land reclamation in his speech several days ago. He qualified his accusations against China. His “not necessarily…” is much more diplomatic.

    “Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules …”

    He also characterized China’s action as “elbowing aside.” Of course, such phrasing conjures up the image of a crowd place where people would inevitably bump into each other. In addition, if one sees world events as a zero sum game, developing nations are all trying to pass a narrow door called “developed nation.” Elbowing aside is also inevitable. Finally, he also emphasized diplomacy as the best way to address the South China Sea dispute.

    G7 also gave a proforma statement objecting massive land reclamation but did not mention China.

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