Lame Ducks in the South China Sea

Talk about the White House’s lack of leadership! The concluding remarks of the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation that took place in the Philippines, with the participation of both Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, brushed aside any concrete action against Beijing’s aggressive land reclamations in the South China Sea. Despite arguably being one of the most important security concerns faced by America, and despite numerous claims that China’s actions must be met head on, when push came to shove, our president folded and exposed once again this administration’s weakness in standing up for this country’s core interests abroad. The draft communiqué avoided any mention of the territorial disputes pitting the U.S., Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam against China, going instead for the wooly language of “greater regional integration.”

But just how did the lame duck administration of Barack Obama become a lame duck presence in the South China Sea?

Alaskan outrage

At the end of August in broad daylight but under cover of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Chinese navy ships cruised within 12 miles of the Alaska coast without giving any warning to the U.S. military of their intention to do so. I say under cover of UNCLOS because according to that convention foreign warships are allowed to enter territorial waters of another state so long as they do not drop anchor and continue moving steadily along. So although what they did was technically legal, the deeply provocative undertone of such an act cannot be lost on anyone who remembers that this took place at exactly the same time that President Obama was touring Alaska. And the U.S. military finally saw fit to return the gesture by sailing a navy destroyer within 12 miles of a Chinese outpost in the South China Sea at the end of October, a look at the broader context in which this tit for tat exchange has occurred will reveal just what a tepid response that was from the U.S.  

Whereas Alaska is an integral part of the U.S. territorial sovereignty, the Subi Reef which the USS Lassen sailed pass in ‘retaliation’ is part of a man-made archipelago of islands constructed by the Chinese in contested waters to serve as military bases. These islands, which didn’t exist until recently, are not a natural part of China in the way that Alaska is a part of the U.S., they are little more than runways from which fighter jets can enforce China’s dubious claim to the South and East China Seas at the expense of its neighbors. In short, they are a physical manifestation of Chinese expansionism. And there can be little excuse for the U.S. finding itself to be caught on the back-foot about this since we have known of China’s plans for this region since 1947. This was the year China published “Nine-dash line” map, so called because it demarcated what it saw to be its region of influence with nine dashes on the map. Fast forward 70 years and it should come as a surprise to no one that once China had the military wherewithal to make good on its longstanding territorial aspiration, it started doing so with gusto.    

Regional tensions

The U.S. has been found severely wanting in its response to the increasing Chinese aggression. What responses it has mustered have been piecemeal and hesitant where they should have been forthright and concerted. One example has been the planned redevelopment of a former U.S. naval base in the Philippines which will once again host American warships on a semi-permanent basis and run joint exercises aimed at improving the self-defense capabilities of the Philippine Navy. Should this come to fruition, which looks likely, it will mark a welcome turnaround in U.S.-Philippine military cooperation after an ill-advised vote in the that country’s parliament in 1992 saw the U.S. Navy ejected from the facility. China’s rise has changed the calculus and the Manila would be wise to acknowledge that by welcoming a U.S. presence on its shores again.

This is an example that should be followed in the case of Malaysia, which until now has opted to counter threatening Chinese actions with mild diplomatic rebukes. Lately, however, these rebukes have become less mild and more consonant with the gravity of the threat posed by their giant neighbor on the mainland. As such, Prime Minister Najib Razak has moved his country squarely in Washington’s corner: first by joining the anti-ISIS coalition, then by opening a digital center to counter Islamic propaganda, followed by the signing of an intelligence-sharing agreement with the U.S. But the pinnacle of Malaysia’s pivot to the U.S. is undoubtedly the signing of the TPP, an agreement that will boost the country’s GDP by an extra 5 pc. This strategic shift presents an opportunity for the U.S. to forge stronger military links with that country to send a message to China that it will no longer stand idly by while it bullies our longstanding allies.

Unfortunately, as long as the current commander-in-chief holds office in the White House it is unlikely that we will see the necessary commitment to establishing clear red lines in the form of iron-clad guarantee and militarily backed alliances in the region. Such red lines are the only things that will keep China’s expansionism in check. Until we have someone in office that believes in, rather than fears, the potential of American power then the U.S. and its allies will be little more than sitting ducks in the South China Sea and beyond.