The Diplomat, October 2015
The United States and China are hurtling toward a showdown over Freedom of Navigation in the the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy is poised to sail near seven artificial islands China constructed in the Spratly archipelago over the past two years as a means to challenge any excessive or illegitimate Chinese sovereignty claims there. In Beijing, meanwhile, opposition to U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) around the artificial islands is hardening….
What the White House has failed to appreciate throughout this drama is the longer it talks about FONOPS without actually conducting them, the more volatile the situation becomes, and the more pressure China’s leadership feels to publicly adopt ever more strident and entrenched opposition. The rhetoric that has emerged out of Beijing in just the past month already exceeds anything witnessed during the Yellow Sea stare-down…
It’s not just belligerent rhetoric Beijing has employed, either. On September 4, for the first time ever, China dispatched naval vessels within 12 nm of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. It’s noteworthy that their presence in U.S. territorial waters overlapped with a high-profile visit to Alaska by Obama. (The blatant double standard – sending warships through America’s territorial sea while threatening the U.S. if it were to do the same to China – is of little concern to Beijing. In 2013 the Chinese Navy began patrolling in the EEZs around Hawaii and Guam, yet it maintains that U.S. military vessels must seek consent from Beijing to operate in Chinese EEZ). Less than two weeks after the incident in Alaska, a Chinese Xian JH-7 fighter-bomber “intercepted” a U.S. Air Force RC-135 in an “unsafe encounter” over international waters in the Yellow Sea, reportedly crossing within 500 feet of the nose of the U.S. plane.
The U.S. may not have suffered for dithering in 2010 in the Yellow Sea, and FONOPS around China’s artificial islands may well proceed in the coming days and weeks without incident. But the U.S. is playing an exceedingly dangerous game of chicken with an increasingly dangerous actor. This is not the China of 2010. This is a more capable, confident, nationalist, and dangerous China. The margin for error is shrinking and the lesson this administration (and those that succeed it) must draw from this episode is: the next time there is a challenge to Freedom of Navigation, it must be addressed quietly and – most important – immediately.