While the White House and the Pentagon go back and forth over what to do in the South China Sea, Beijing has been literally changing the geography of the region. And it looks like there’s more to come. The WSJ:
Possession, after all, is nine-tenths of the law. And China’s island-building may not have ended. The Pentagon fears that Chinese dredgers might be planning a fresh round of construction on Scarborough Shoal that it effectively seized from the Philippines in 2012, which would give the People’s Liberation Army a jumping-off point just 140 miles from Manila. It’s bracing, too, for China to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the entire South China Sea, which China could enforce from its artificial islands. China has pledged to ignore the tribunal’s findings.
China’s land reclamation won’t change the legal case in The Hague; semi-submerged reefs don’t become islands even if you build on them. Nevertheless, slow-moving Chinese dredgers have outmaneuvered the world’s most powerful navy. China’s political leaders calculated, correctly, that America wouldn’t risk war over a bunch of uninhabited rocks and reefs to stop them.
Last fall, the U.S. Navy, which had sought permission to conduct operations intended to challenge China’s claims for years, finally got the go-ahead from the White House. But it may have been too late, and there are limits to what simply sailing a ships past China’s fortifications can do to ultimately deter Beijing.
Furthermore, an international court is set, sometime in the coming weeks, to issue a decision in the case brought by the Philippines last year. It’s difficult to imagine that the favorable outcome for Manila, which many expect, will do much to change China’s behavior either.
The game now just gets more dangerous and the stakes get higher. We have seen abundant signs recently that very high-ranking people at the Defense Department are intent on ensuring that the United States does not blink now and concede Beijing’s fait accompli. That means that the U.S. Navy will have to continue to force the issue by sailing through the international waters claimed by China, and that U.S. bombers and fighters will need to be on alert to fly right through any Air Defense Identification Zone shortly after it is announced.
The question on everyone’s mind—especially our Asian allies’—is whether President Obama will care to follow through.