A maritime game of chicken in East Asia

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SINGAPORE: The US appears to be moving toward a military test of China’s claims of sovereignty in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and officials here seem pleased that President Obama is prepared to put more muscle into his famous “pivot” to Asia.

The US has been briefing Asian allies about its new readiness to assert “freedom of navigation” by sending ships within the 12-mile limits that China has placed around its newly reclaimed “islands.” Adm. John Richardson, the new chief of naval operations, said in Tokyo a week ago that US warships will be “just steaming in international waters,” and that this shouldn’t be seen by Beijing as a “provocation.”

After ducking a confrontation with China over the disputed islands since 2012, the administration has decided to take a tougher stance. “The United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows,” Obama said at a news conference with President Xi Jinping during the Chinese leader’s visit to Washington last month. Xi, for his part, insisted that China won’t militarize the islands.

What will the Chinese do as US warships sail past the maritime limits Beijing claims? Its foreign ministry warned that “there is no way for us to condone infringement of China’s territorial sea.” But officials here expect that China will do no more than shadow US vessels, and perhaps attempt to block their passage, rather than open opening fire.


The maritime game of chicken that’s looming could easily escalate out of control. So the US and China would be wise to agree on clearer rules for dealing with incidents at sea, before vessels actually come in contact. Superpowers shouldn’t make “invidious premature choices,” warns Bilahari Kausikan, a Singapore ambassador at large and former top official of the foreign ministry.

Southeast Asian leaders, who have been worried that Obama was too passive about China’s island grab, appear relieved. They want Washington to follow through on the logic of the pivot, which was that America’s military focus should shift from the Middle East, where it has been bogged down in seemingly unwinnable wars, to Asia, where many believe the US economic future lies.

“America has been distracted,” says a former top Singapore official. “There’s been a lack of focus on Asia. If America had been more alert, the Chinese could not have moved in the South China Sea. They’re opportunists. They will continue to push until they hit a wall.”

Southeast Asian leaders were pleased when US administration officials began talking about the pivot back in November 2011. But they have been disappointed at the lack of follow-through, which some say encouraged the Chinese to press ahead with their reclamation of reefs in the South China Sea, turning them into artificial islands where the Chinese could assert sovereignty and eventually build military bases.

The Chinese concluded several years ago that the Obama administration “would talk but do nothing” about the disputed islands, said a senior Singapore official. He speculates that the Chinese may have been “rushing” to construct the islands because they feared the next US president would have a more “robust” stance than Obama.

The debate here about checking Chinese power in Asia has a different (and more positive) tone than the relentless Washington focus on Russia and the Middle East. Officials here see the Middle East as an unfortunate diversion from the more important challenge of a rising China. Obama would probably say the same thing.

Kausikan says he’s not worried about a US retreat from the Middle East. “’Offshore balancer’ is fine,” he says, using the term foreign policy experts use to describe a less-engaged US military strategy in the Middle East. “When you tried to be an onshore balancer, you cocked it up royally,” he says, referring to the Iraq War. “Now you are finding a new equilibrium. And you are part of Asia, inextricably.”

Talking with Southeast Asian officials is the foreign policy equivalent of changing the channel. The Middle East is a continuing demonstration of the limits of US military power, and antipathy toward its use. But in the Pacific region, countries invite that same US power to check China’s bid for regional dominance. The common theme, perhaps, is that nations want America to fight their wars, until they go bad.

“We speak of the US as a ‘benign hegemon,” says Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s former ambassador to Washington. Have you ever heard that phrase applied to America’s role in the Middle East?

(c) 2015, WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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2 Comments

  1. There will be no accident if US will stay firm in supporting ASEAN on its fight against China on Spratley, Scarborough and Paracel Islands. More importantly, ASEAN and ANZUS pact should conduct military drill to signal to China that if it want peace they should abandon it’s nine dash line map of the China Sea or West Philippines Sea.

  2. Mariano Patalinjug on

    Yonkers, New York
    26 October 2015

    It is almost certain that President Barack Obama is starting to back up his warning to Chinese president Xi Jinping in their meeting in Washington last September that the United States will conduct freedom of navigation patrols in international waters.

    That explains why Admiral John Richardson, the new Chief of Naval Operations, has just announced, in Tokyo, that US warships will be ‘just steaming in international waters,’ and shouldn’t be seen by Beijing as a ‘provocation.”

    Of course, Beijing will see these so-called ‘FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION PATROLS” by US warship;s within the 12 nm limit of the Spratlys where China has in fact MILITARIZED its reclamations and constructions over maritime structures the Philippines claIms are parts of its territory under International Law [UNCLOS], as clear and intentional ‘provocations.”

    A showdown between the US and China in the disputed area is in the realm of possbility, giving China’s clear warning to the US. On the very day those US warships are within the 12 nm limit of the Spratlys, an “accident” will very likely happen, more likely than not to be initiated by China, even if only for China to avoid “losing face!”

    In the event, that will be the trigger for a full-blown military confrontation between China and the United States.

    MARIANO PATALINJUG
    patalinjugmar@gmail.com