Raising the Stakes
Pentagon Ramping Up Plans in South China Sea

David Ignatius’ latest op-ed seems to indicate that the Pentagon is gearing up in a big way to confront Beijing in the South China Sea:

What will China do next? Beijing has denounced…arbitration of its maritime claims, and some U.S. officials believe it may respond to an unfavorable ruling by declaring an air-defense identification zone, or “ADIZ,” in the South China Sea — in effect banning flights there without Chinese permission. This would present a new and dangerous provocation for Washington.

The Pentagon argues that the United States should immediately challenge any air-defense identification zone claim by flying U.S. military planes into the area. That’s what happened in November 2013 when B-52s immediately challenged an ADIZ declared by China in the East China Sea. Because this overflight had previously been scheduled, the Pentagon didn’t have to ask White House approval; Pentagon officials fear that if such permission had been required, it would have been denied.

That last detail in particular, about Obama’s lack of desire to confront China, suggests that a lot of the preparatory details revealed in the rest of the column might be strategic leaks by Pentagon brass to force the President’s hand should things heat up. Another striking detail in the piece:

What troubles the White House is that President Obama thought he was assured by President Xi Jinping in Washington in September that China would act with restraint in the South China Sea. “China does not intend to pursue militarization,” Xi said publicly in the Rose Garden.

Shocking that Xi might not be a straight shooter…

Whatever the political realities between the White House and the Pentagon are, the plans divulged by Ignatius should raise eyebrows in Beijing:

Options include an aggressive tit-for-tat strategy, in which the United States would help countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam build artificial islands of their own in disputed waters. The Philippines effectively took such a step in 1999 when it deliberately grounded a large vessel on a shoal in the Spratly Islands; it recently resupplied that vessel, while U.S. drones patrolled overhead.

Coupled with other reports of the U.S. Army planning to stockpile equipment and supplies in Vietnam, Cambodia and other as-yet unnamed countries, the message couldn’t be clearer. Nevertheless, one has to wonder if the military planners in Beijing are at all tempted to push on to see just how far they can get with President Obama: does threatening military conflict in the South China Sea clear the threshold of “not doing stupid sh*t” in the President’s mind?

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