What exactly is President Obama’s strategy in the South China Sea? After dithering for months on whether to conduct freedom of navigation exercises, the White House finally went ahead and sailed a destroyer past a Chinese artificial island in October. Then there was some confusion as Pentagon and Administration officials said the operation had been mischaracterized. Now, after a U.S. B-52 bomber flew over a Chinese man-made island last week, officials are indicating that the Pentagon made a mistake. The Wall Street Journal:
Pentagon officials told The Wall Street Journal they are investigating why one of two B-52s on the mission last week flew closer than planned to Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands, an area where China and its neighbors have competing territorial claims. A senior U.S. defense official said that bad weather had contributed to the pilot flying off course and into the area claimed by China.Beijing filed a formal diplomatic complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which prompted the Pentagon to look into the matter.
Given that the United States does not recognize China’s claims, it’s unclear why, even if the operation was a mistake, the Pentagon would publicly acknowledge as much. Such mixed signals make it difficult to put significant pressure on Beijing. Moreover, this backtracking comes after several strong indications that the navigation exercises had emboldened Pacific allies like Malaysia and the Philippines. Just two weeks ago, we observed how refreshing it was to see American leadership in the South China Sea. All good things must come to an end, we know, but, under this Administration, they often do so with unusual—and distressing—speed.