Last week, the US did a silly thing. The Pentagon sent the USS Lassen to Subi Reef in the Spratlys just to see if Washington could sail by China’s man-made islands in the South Pacific without getting shot at.
As ridiculous as that sounds from a kind of “let’s not start World War III” perspective, it’s an entirely accurate assessment of Obama’s “freedom of navigation” exercise. There was no reason whatsoever for the US to be there and the pass-by served no purpose at all other than to test Beijing’s patience.
To be sure, China isn’t innocent here. They’ve built 3,000 acres of sovereign territory atop reefs in disputed waters and built runways, ports, and cement factories on their new “land” which understandably makes Washington’s regional allies like The Philippines a bit nervous.
Still, it isn’t as if the PLA is about to invade Australia and it seems likely that if one could listen in at The Pentagon, US officials could probably care less about these “sandcastles." But America’s “friends” in the region think that “this is the time for courage” (to borrow and alter a classic Gartman-ism), and so, Washington felt compelled to sail a warship by the islands just to prove it could. China didn’t fire on or surround the US-flagged guided missile destroyer, but the PLA did follow it and Beijing subsequently expressed its extreme displeasure at the “exercise.”
As we noted before and after the “incident”, most “experts” believe the US will need to keep up the patrols if they’re to be “effective.” Sure enough, The Pentagon now says destroyers will sail within 12 nautical miles of the islands twice every three months. Here’s Reuters:
The U.S. Navy plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea about twice a quarter, a U.S. defense official said on Monday.
“We’re going to come down to about twice a quarter or a little more than that,” the official said. “That’s the right amount to make it regular but not a constant poke in the eye. It meets the intent to regularly exercise our rights under international law and remind the Chinese and others about our view.”
Yes, because Washington doesn’t want to “poke anyone in the eye.”
So, as The White House attempts to put on a brave face amid mounting threats to US hegemony, The Pentagon is apprently set to antagonize Beijing for no reason at all other than to appease America's regional allies who are effectively asking if Big Brother is still dedicated to playing world police officer.
We close with China's warning, issued last week:
"If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war."