Apparently spooked by Beijing’s claims of exclusion zones around newly-built artificial islands and the prospect of a Chinese ADIZ over the area, the U.S. has recently upped its resistance to China’s territorial aggression in the South China Sea. American officials are talking tough and Washington is sailing ships and flying planes on “freedom of navigation missions” through what China now sees as its own sovereign territory (despite the unequivocal wording of the China-signed UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). China’s actions have been pushing neighbors into a sort of coalition, and U.S. backing is a key factor in making that coalition strong enough to make China think twice about stirring up trouble in Asian coastal waters.
But the story isn’t quite as simple as all that. For one thing, China’s territorial opponents are also its economic allies, and governments from Manila to Hanoi to Canberra to, yes, Washington have to consider economic and territorial/security interests as they form their China policies. The FT reports that countries, in light of the new U.S. stance, don’t want to choose between the U.S. and economic relations with China. Moreover, China is not the only country in the area pursuing land reclamation—and the U.S. stance towards China’s efforts risks raising questions about other countries’ projects.
The FT article, then, points to something ominous: The rest of the world is watching events in the South China Sea, and many thoughtful and experienced observers are concluding that the Obama administration has gotten ahead of itself with its attempts to stand up to China and lacks a strategy. What does the U.S. do if China doesn’t think America’s threats are credible? Is Washington’s stronger stance on China writing checks that there isn’t enough domestic U.S. political will to cash? And what if the deep historical divides and the differences in interests among the emerging regional coalition keep it from wielding its collective power effectively?
These are all questions that the U.S. needs answers to in terms of a strategy for East Asia. We can hope that behind the scenes the White House is preparing an effective response, and it appears that both public and elite opinion seem concerned enough about China that leadership will draw support. But the appearance of being, as the FT says, ‘on the back foot’ in Asia isn’t good for an administration already bedeviled by doubts about its grasp of global power realities.