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South China Sea Standoff
U.S. Navy Prepares Confrontation in the South China Sea

The United States is preparing to maneuver naval warships and aircraft close to China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, in what would be the Obama Administration’s toughest response yet to Beijing. Reportedly, the White House is readying plans to send warships within twelve nautical miles of several of the islands—a move that China claims would be an illegal violation of its sovereignty. Citing a U.N. treaty, the United States argues that man-made outposts cannot be construed as legitimate territory. Foreign Policy has the story:

The move toward a somewhat more muscular stance follows talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington last month, which fell far short of a breakthrough over how territorial disputes should be settled in the strategic South China Sea.

A final decision has not been made. But the Obama administration is heavily leaning toward using a show of military might after Chinese opposition ended diplomatic efforts to halt land reclamation and the construction of military outposts in the waterway. The timing and details of the patrols — which would be designed to uphold principles of freedom of navigation in international waters — are still being worked out, Obama administration and Pentagon officials said.

“It’s not a question of if, but when,” said a Defense Department official.

President Obama has been under increasing pressure from, for example, Arizona Senator John McCain to be more assertive in the South China Sea, and in the run-up to last week’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the White House promised to address the South China Sea disputes. Yet although Obama and Xi made some headway toward resolving other issues, their meeting concluded without any agreement about this issue, and China expert Bill Bishop remarks that these Defense Department comments may indicate the Xi–Obama meeting didn’t go as well as Chinese media outlets (and some American journalists) have been reporting. If the U.S. follows through on sending the ships, that could very well open a new, and more aggressive, chapter in recent Sino-American relations.

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  • Blackbeard

    Golly, I wonder which side will back down.

  • ImperiumVita

    Ideally this will be done with a multinational task force. Its not favorable optics if this can be portrayed within China as the USA unilaterally acting to “contain” China. That message builds resentment.

    The international community working together to enforce common rules is something else entirely. Some in China will still see USA led containment, but that narrative becomes more difficult.

    • Tom

      China’s perception does not matter. What does matter is ASEAN’s perception.

    • johngbarker

      What would be the composition of this task force and who would assemble it?

      • ImperiumVita

        Anybody who respects UNCLOS and wants to join, and the USA obviously.

    • Xenophon

      I was under the impression that the nations who also claim the sea within the ‘seven dotted line’ are in support of greater U.S presence in the South China sea.

      • ImperiumVita

        Nobody “claims the sea” other than China. The other littoral states which claim specific islands and UNCLOS granted EEZs are generally in favor of the USA’s involvement. Though whether they are willing to demonstrate solidarity with the USA as it undertakes freedom of navigation operations is uncertain in the face of potential economic repercussions from China.

        • Xenophon

          It is unclear that the US is fully willing to undertake freedom of navigation operations in the south China Sea in the face of the economic repercussions

          • f1b0nacc1

            What economic reprecussions? The Chinese are in no position whatsoever to do anything about this, and we both know it.
            I typically am willing to denigrate just about any action undertaken by Obama, but here is an example of one that I can support.

          • ImperiumVita

            Sure, but that’s neither here nor there. The premise of the current article is that the USA seems to be preparing for the prospect.

      • Karl Taylor

        Haha!! Enjoying yourself are we.?

  • Ah Ee Tan

    I feel it is OK for US military War ships and War planes to navigate in SCS, and at the same , it is OK for China to tset their DF 21, DF 5 etc within their front door SCS. The only issue, Both countries must communicate of their actions to avoid CALAMITY!!!

  • elHombre

    Having taken a page from US college administrators by declaring Iran a “Nuke Free Zone,” Obama and Kerry, in response to Putin, may now unveil plans to declare Syria a “Gun Free Zone” and, in response to China, declare the So China Sea a “Warship Free Zone.”

    Or was it a “free nuke zone?”

  • ChuckFinley

    “Citing a U.N. treaty, the United States argues that man-made outposts cannot be construed as legitimate territory.”

    Fort Sumter was built on an artificial island in Charleston Harbor. Does that mean that there was no justification for the Civil War?

    • Government Drone

      Ft. Sumter was built within sight of the Carolina shore (workers doing construction on it at the time commuted daily out there via boat), making it inside the 3-mile territorial waters most nations recognized at the time.
      This UN treaty, IIRC, forbids a nation from doing things like constructing artificial islands way out in international waters & then claiming it as its own territory.
      What China has been doing is constructing (or shoring up) small islets that are within the Philippines’ “exclusive economic zone” waters; this is not sovereign territory as such (cables & pipes can be laid along the bottom, & ships can freely pass through without asking permission), but the Philippines does have say over who can fish there, or drill for oil.
      I think in pretty much all these disputes, the bits of land (or semisubmerged reef) in question are all much closer to the other ASEAN countries than China anyway, so if they’re part of someone’s territory, they’re extremely likely to be non-Chinese. China’s been trying to justify its claims with references to records by long-ago explorers & merchants, but it as the problem that at the time these records were written, China had no interest in claiming such territory & disavowed any interest.

      • ChuckFinley

        I was just being a wise guy. Don’t worry about it.

        UN treaties have as much weight as countries with powerful military forces care to give them. As the US retreats from the role it formerly filled, new power relationships will develop in the vacuum. The Chinese never felt a need to assert ownership over territory because ownership over everything on earth was assumed by The Middle Kingdom – the middle being between Heaven and Hell. If it comes down to it ownership of these islands will be determined the same way ownership of the Falkland Islands was.

  • Daniel Nylen

    The real issue is that the relative strength between the parties in the areas around China has drastically changed. Because the US will be sailing within range of land-based airfields and with the Chinese modernization, the Chinese should know that they the upper hand in military force. Hopefully the US realizes this too. I assume (hope) that the US will send in a small force much akin to what we sent into the Black Sea during the cold war. Enough to cause provocation and make a point about freedom of the seas, but also easily overwhelmed, acknowledging the local superiority. Maybe all the Chinese will do is play bumper cars as did the Russians. It was crazy during the cold war and it is crazy now, but boys will be boys and have to puff their chests and butt heads. Somehow, I doubt this administration was thought things thru as did the earlier cold war era administrations when they sent ships into obviously harms way

  • InklingBooks

    A wiser and better-led U.S. would turn other, carefully selected reefs into our on artificial islands in concert with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and perhaps India. On of China’s main goals are the resources that may lie under those seas. One little island would block their dubious clams to thousands of square miles.

    Note too the revealing silence from environmental groups at what China is doing to those reefs. Do they really care, or is this all a game to get more contributions?

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