On Friday, we reported the latest provocation in what has truly become a very dangerous, if largely pointless, staring contest between Beijing and Washington over China’s reclamation of land in The South China Sea.
Responding to suggestions that the US was set to sail warships around the islands Beijing has constructed atop reefs in the Spratlys, China served noticed that it would “never allow any country to violate China's territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight.” This was simply a formalized version of the more concise phrasing the PLA navy used when they instructed the pilots flying a US spy plane to “Go now!” when it ventured too close to Fiery Cross earlier this year.
It’s not immediately clear what China intends to do with the islands and further, it’s not entirely clear why anyone should necessarily care if Beijing wants to build “sand castles” in the middle of the ocean, but then again, for America’s regional allies the land reclamation efforts look a lot an attempt to build a series of military outposts by creating sovereign territory where there was none thereby effectively redrawing maritime boundaries and so, big brother in Washington is set to step in in order to protect vital shipping lanes.
Of course having already said that the navy plans to sail ships into the waters around the islands, the US can ill-afford to allow China’s “we won’t tolerate that” pronouncement to deter the Pentagon because the optics around that would be terrible at a time when the world is already questioning the strength and resolve of the US military. So the ships will indeed sail. Here’s WSJ:
The U.S. determination to challenge China with patrols near Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea will test Xi Jinping’s recent pledge that Beijing doesn’t intend to “militarize” the islands, an announcement that took U.S. officials by surprise.
The Chinese leader made the commitment during a news conference with President Barack Obama at the White House late last month, though he left it unclear how the pledge would affect China’s activities in the disputed area of the South China Sea.
If Mr. Xi’s goal was to discourage the U.S. from conducting patrols near the artificial islands, he doesn’t appear to have succeeded. After months of debate in the U.S. government, there is now a consensus that the U.S. Navy should send ships or aircraft within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands to challenge China’s territorial claims there, according to people familiar with internal discussions.
A U.S. official confirmed Sunday that a decision had been made to conduct such patrols but said it was unclear when that might happen or where exactly. “It’s just a matter of time when it happens,” the official said. Another U.S. official indicated that the operation could come within days.
The question now is whether China will respond to such operations by reining in its plans to develop the islands or backing away from the commitment not to militarize them, pointing to the U.S. patrols as a provocation.
Anyone who knows anything about how China generally prefers to respond in situations like these knows that Beijing will almost certainly call any US naval presence a "provocation" and they'll be exactly right. After all, there's something rather ironic about claiming that China is in the process of militarizing the South China Sea and then deciding that the best way to de-escalate the situation is to sail warships to the area. Here's WSJ again:
The Pacific Fleet has been ready to conduct “freedom of navigation operations,” or Fonops, around China’s artificial islands for months after being asked to draw up options by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter earlier this year. The decision to begin the patrols appears to have been delayed to avoid disrupting the summit, people familiar with internal discussions say.
“A U.S. Fonop gives China an opportunity to assert that the United States is the country ‘militarizing’ the South China Sea and, if China chooses, such a Fonop provides a rationale for China to further militarize or develop the features it occupies,” said Taylor Fravel, an expert on the Chinese military at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
So in reality, the real question is this: now that Russia has moved to effectively reclaim the Mid-East from US influence, and now that China is in the process of using its island building efforts to establish what we've called a kind of Sino-Monroe Doctrine, how long will it be before someone actually challenges the US military by shooting down a plane in the desert or firing on a ship in the Spratlys just to test Washington's resolve?
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Finally here again, as a reminder, are the satellite images which demonstrate the extent to which Beijing is "changing the landscape", so to speak, in the South China Sea.