Earlier this week, China laid out its “most important bottom line” in the standoff in the South China Sea: that it is committed to completing the land-reclamation and airstrip-building projects on the atolls it considers parts of its territory. Today, Beijing extended its complaints:
“I want to empathize [sic.] that the U.S. has been selectively mute on individual countries that have selectively occupied China’s islands and reefs, but have made irresponsible remarks on the construction activities that are lawful, fair and reasonable within China’s scope of sovereignty,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing on Thursday.
“The Chinese people can make their own judgment. No one has the right to tell China what to do,” she added.
The United States is having none of it, however. Admiral Harry Harris, the new head of U.S. Pacific Command, called China’s recent behavior in the region “preposterous.” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, while in Honolulu overseeing the change of command from Admiral Samuel Locklear to Admiral Harris, laid out the America’s own bottom line:
“We want a peaceful resolution of all disputes, and an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by any claimant,” Carter said in his prepared remarks. “We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features.
“And there should be no mistake: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.” […]
“China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific’s security architecture, and the regional consensus in favor of non-coercive approaches to this and other long-standing disputes,” Carter said, later adding that the US “will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.” […]
“China’s actions are bringing countries in the region together in new ways,” he said. “And they’re increasing demand for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific. We’re going to meet it.”
At another presser, Carter also pushed back at the Chinese assertion that the flareup was somehow America’s fault:
“We’ve been flying over the South China Sea for years and years and years, and … will continue to do that: fly, navigate, operate. So that’s not a new fact,” Carter said.
“The new facts are the reclamation and the scale on which it is being done, and that’s not an American fact, that’s a Chinese fact,” Carter said.
The SecDef’s point about Beijing’s territorial aggression creating a coalition of neighbors bent on thwarting Chinese expansion is a tune we’ve been singing for years now. All along, we’ve been noting that Beijing’s strategic liability is not only that opponents that don’t otherwise play nicely with each other will pull together when threatened, but also that they will get American backing. Now that the U.S. is starting to get serious about putting some muscle behind the vaunted “pivot to Asia,” as its recent actions in the South China Sea have shown, the ball is in Beijing’s court.