South China Sea Standoff
China Stares Down U.S. in South China Sea

The White House has been sending mixed signals about its plans to send ships through China’s 12-mile exclusion zone in the South China Sea—and a recent WSJ piece sheds some light on why. Plans for so-called freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) have existed for months, but it appears officials were thrown off by an unexpected pledge President Xi Jinping gave during last month’s state visit—stated at a joint press conference, but not directly to President Obama—not to militarize the reclaimed reefs:

Mr. Xi issued no such pledge about not intending to militarize the islands in his private discussions with Mr. Obama, according to people briefed on the talks, and U.S. officials had no time immediately after the news conference to clarify with their Chinese counterparts what was meant by “militarize.”

U.S. officials, who have been seeking clarification from their Beijing counterparts since, don’t think Mr. Xi misspoke. But the unexpected remarks on one of the most sensitive issues in China-U.S. relations suggested how Mr. Xi’s top-down leadership style can cause confusion.

Yet after Xi returned to Beijing, building continued on some of the artificial islands, and American officials now say that the U.S. would indeed go forward with its plans.

In the meantime, the Chinese think they can stare down the U.S. in their own backyard should tensions continue to rise, according to an excellent read in Newsweek on the tensions in the South China Sea. “The U.S. wants to dominate the world, China only wants to keep America from dominating its neighborhood”, a prominent U.S.-educated Chinese political scientist and venture capitalist said in remarks suggesting that this imbalance gives China an advantage. Furthermore, Beijing believes that the United States’ commitment to the region is too expensive and that President Obama does not have the stomach for another global crisis.

Xi seems to be playing a clever game with the United States. The Washington Post reported last week that China has been arresting a few hackers at the behest of U.S. officials, presumably in an attempt to convince the White House that Beijing wants to be a constructive partner. But after being thrown off guard by Xi’s overtures when he visited the U.S. last month, the White House may have sobered up. We certainly hope so. As Bill Bishop tells Newsweek, China takes its territorial claims very seriously: “It’s not just the government making it up. The South China Sea is an intractable issue. It’s not just the party line.”

UPDATE: As we were publishing the above, the Financial Times reports that Chinese officials heightened their rhetoric today:

In the latest escalation of rhetoric from Beijing, a senior Chinese naval officer on Thursday warned the US that China’s military would “give a head-on blow” to foreign forces “violating” China’s sovereignty.

It is hard to know exactly what China might do if the U.S. sends ships within the 12-mile zone. One possibility: Beijing could claim that the U.S. is forcing it to militarize what China maintains are peaceful outposts. Of course, the artificial islands look a lot like military installations already.

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