South China Sea Standoff
U.S. Navy Prepares Confrontation in the South China Sea

The United States is preparing to maneuver naval warships and aircraft close to China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, in what would be the Obama Administration’s toughest response yet to Beijing. Reportedly, the White House is readying plans to send warships within twelve nautical miles of several of the islands—a move that China claims would be an illegal violation of its sovereignty. Citing a U.N. treaty, the United States argues that man-made outposts cannot be construed as legitimate territory. Foreign Policy has the story:

The move toward a somewhat more muscular stance follows talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington last month, which fell far short of a breakthrough over how territorial disputes should be settled in the strategic South China Sea.

A final decision has not been made. But the Obama administration is heavily leaning toward using a show of military might after Chinese opposition ended diplomatic efforts to halt land reclamation and the construction of military outposts in the waterway. The timing and details of the patrols — which would be designed to uphold principles of freedom of navigation in international waters — are still being worked out, Obama administration and Pentagon officials said.

“It’s not a question of if, but when,” said a Defense Department official.

President Obama has been under increasing pressure from, for example, Arizona Senator John McCain to be more assertive in the South China Sea, and in the run-up to last week’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the White House promised to address the South China Sea disputes. Yet although Obama and Xi made some headway toward resolving other issues, their meeting concluded without any agreement about this issue, and China expert Bill Bishop remarks that these Defense Department comments may indicate the Xi–Obama meeting didn’t go as well as Chinese media outlets (and some American journalists) have been reporting. If the U.S. follows through on sending the ships, that could very well open a new, and more aggressive, chapter in recent Sino-American relations.

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