Obama weakness may result in US-China confrontation

East Asia now stands close to a precipice. China figures the US is too distracted or uninterested to care about its expansion. They may be right. But the world may pay a very heavy price for this. The prospect of armed confrontation between the US and China has just dramatically increased. Here's why...

Sprat_islands
The Spratly Islands look so innocent...
Michael_auslin
Michael Auslin
On 7 June 2015 13:32

You may not have noticed, as ISIS expands its reach across Iraq and Russia fuels conflict in Ukraine, but the odds of an armed confrontation between the United States and China just dramatically increased.

After years of ignoring China’s growing assertiveness in Asia, the Obama administration has been taken unaware by a major land and power grab by Beijing.

Over the past several years, China has steadily expanded its territorial ambitions, including a claim that the entire South China Sea is under its dominion.

The sea is one of the world’s most strategic bodies of water. It contains crucial sea lanes, such as the Malacca Strait, through which nearly 70,000 ships transit each year.

In the middle of the South China Sea is a loose chain of islets, shoals and reefs called the Spratly Islands. They are claimed by almost every nation in the region, including Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and, of course, China.

The rich fishing waters surrounding the Spratlys have been in contention for decades. The Philippines often have complained to the US -- in vain -- that powerful Chinese maritime patrol vessels have chased away their boats. Nor is this the only area in which China has thrown around its weight, having challenged Japanese control over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Now the situation has escalated.

China has engaged in a massive reclamation project, dredging up sand and creating islands on shallow reefs. The US government estimates that up to 2,000 acres of new land has been built. On these “fantasy” islands, China is building airstrips and ports, erecting barracks and establishing radar systems. Guns and fighter jets are next.

Beijing is militarizing its new land and then claiming it as sovereign territory, demanding that other countries stay out of what was once international waters.

For years, Washington ignored treaty allies like the Philippines, which called it “a creeping invasion.” Instead, the Obama administration, like others before it, has bent over backward to try and improve relations with China, even inviting it to our biggest naval exercises.

Much like the supposed Russian “reset,” that goodwill has been spurned.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week publicly rebuked Beijing, demanding that it stop its reclamation activities and warning China that it is isolating itself in the eyes of the world community. More concretely, Carter and other officials have stated that the US will ignore China’s claims and will fly military planes over the islands’ airspace, and will sail within the 12-mile limit claimed by China.

Though no US ships have yet ventured inside that ring, the line has been drawn.

For its part, Beijing is not backing down. Indeed, not only have Chinese officials criticized Washington’s response, a state run newspaper, The Global Times, warned that a “US-China war is inevitable,” if Washington tries to force China to halt its activities.

Official Chinese military doctrine is also ominously changing to reflect the new reality, stating that Beijing’s forces will no longer focus solely on territorial defense, but will project power far beyond its borders.

All it would take is one hotheaded action by a Chinese fighter pilot to ignite an armed confrontation between the two sides. Unlike during the Cold War days, when Moscow and Washington established important crisis-management mechanisms, there are almost no working relations of trust between China and the United States.

It is not assured that an accident or encounter could be prevented from spiraling out of control.

Yet neither side seems willing to back down. The US is being challenged again as a paper tiger, and if it fails to follow through on its promise to sail through the Spratlys, its Asian allies will wonder how strong America’s security commitments really are.

For Beijing, the stakes are just as high. Failing to assert its control over the waters it now claims will expose it as a geopolitical fraud. This will embolden other nations to similarly challenge China’s claims, and ironically possibly increase the likelihood of some type of military clash in Asia.

East Asia now stands close to a precipice. China figures the US is too distracted or uninterested to care about its expansion. They may be right.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues. Before joining AEI, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University. His articles can be read here

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