Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter remarks at this weekend’s Shangri-La conference in Singapore were a reiteration of what the United States has been saying for the past few weeks as it raised the temperature in the South China Sea. Secretary Carter called for a “lasting halt” to land reclamation by Beijing, and repeated that the United States would continue to sail ships and fly planes through international waters and airspace. “Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit,” he told the audience.
But according to the Wall Street Journal accounts of the event, the Chinese delegation appeared content with the extent of Carter’s criticism. Saturday’s article contained the following quote:
Col. Yu Lin of China’s People’s Liberation Army said that the tone of Mr. Carter’s speech was “acceptable” to the Chinese delegation, which thought the criticism would be sharper. The U.S. may keep up verbal criticism and continue with surveillance, she said, but “the U.S. will never do more than that.”
Today’s article added this:
China appeared unfazed by Mr. Carter’s remarks and showed little indication of backing down. Zhao Xiaozhou, a Chinese colonel, said Mr. Carter “wasn’t as tough as I expected.”
If all the U.S. is willing to do is fly planes and make indignant speeches while the Chinese keep building up the atolls, Beijing appears to be able to live with it. Does Washington have a next step in mind? Does the White House have a strategy that can change China’s calculations about its behavior, leading to an abandonment of the island build up? Are the Chinese miscalculating, or have they taken the Obama Administration’s temperature correctly?
Either way, the world is much closer to war in the Pacific than we were a year ago.