The U.S. has made a series of bold gestures lately with regards to the South China Sea in an effort to make it clear to Beijing that America won’t stand for its territorial aggression. But there’s a problem: the message doesn’t seem to be getting through to the Chinese. As we noted over the weekend, Beijing appears to be largely unfazed.
More evidence for our take from Josh Rogin’s report for Bloomberg from this weekend’s Shangri-La conference:
The main takeaway for many of us Westerners present was that People’s Liberation Army is feeling confident, and it has little respect for an Obama administration that talks big about confronting China but has yet to lay out a clear strategy for doing so.
“A member of the PLA asked me whether, in 18 months if Hillary Clinton is elected president, will she be much tougher on China than the current administration,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I said, ‘The premise of your question is that in the next 18 months you have enough running room to do whatever you want.’ He just laughed.”
The dangerous situation in the South China Sea is the result of years of broken promises and idle threats—and not just in Asia. The world’s revisionist powers have been watching carefully as to how the Obama Administration has handled its return to geopolitics.
One of the most important tools in the American foreign policy toolkit is the ability to make credible threats. If opponents start to think the U.S. doesn’t have the guts to follow through on what it says it cares about with hard power, then one of two bad things can happen. The first is that opponents ignore an American threat and turn out to be right that it’s a mere bluff. The second is that opponents call what they think is a bluff, and wind up surprised by the brutality and intensity of the sleeping dragon they have awakened. Neither of these outcomes, powerlessness or war, secures U.S. interests.
Let’s hope that the U.S. has a plan here for what it’s next steps are. If not, the administration is just pounding in the lesson that American ultimatums don’t have to be taken seriously.