President Barack Obama lands in Japan Wednesday to kick off a week-long Asian Reassurance Tour, and not a moment too soon. Amid the summitry in Tokyo, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Manila, Asian leaders will be watching the showdown over an obscure speck of land in the South China Sea.
Second Thomas Shoal sits some 125 miles off
the western coast of the Philippines, one of more than 750 rocks, reefs
and islets known as the Spratly Islands. Today it is the site of China's
boldest attempt to forcibly exert sovereignty over the resource-rich,
1.35-million-square-mile South China Sea, through which one-third of all
global maritime traffic passes.
Early last month
Chinese ships blocked the Philippine military from resupplying its
marines on the shoal, which is 700 miles from China's coast and has had a
Philippine military presence since 1999. This marked an escalation in
China's "cabbage strategy" of seizing Philippine territory by gradually
surrounding it with layers of Chinese boats, from fishing vessels to
coast guard patrols and warships.
essentially dares Manila to risk a shooting war whenever it resupplies
or rotates its marines, as it last did on March 29. That time a
Philippine supply ship successfully reached the shoal, having maneuvered
past Chinese coast guard vessels at a distance of a few hundred
dangerous meters. Manila's next supply run could come any day.
This is the latest in a string of Chinese provocations against the
Philippines. In 2012, several hundred miles to the north, Beijing seized
Scarborough Shoal after Philippine patrols had the temerity to try to
arrest illegal Chinese fishermen. The U.S. brokered a June 2012
agreement for China and the Philippines to withdraw from Scarborough,
but only Manila complied. Chinese ships have since used water cannons to
keep Filipinos from fishing in the area.
early 2013 the Philippines challenged China's territorial claims through
arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,
which both countries have signed. Furious at this appeal to a
rules-based international order, Beijing responded by squeezing Second
Thomas Shoal, demanding that Manila withdraw its marines and barring
Philippine President Benigno Aquino from a trade fair in China unless he
abandoned his call for arbitration. China blockaded the shoal last
month as Manila was poised to submit its 4,000-page case to the U.N.
All of this constitutes a challenge to Washington. The U.S. and the
Philippines signed a mutual-defense treaty in 1951, but Washington has
signaled that it wouldn't cover a Chinese attack on Second Thomas Shoal,
which falls within Manila's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone but wasn't
claimed by Manila until 1978.
Visiting Manila in
February, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert
answered a hypothetical question about China seizing
Philippine-controlled territory in the Spratlys. "Of course we would
help you," he said initially--before adding: "I don't know what that
help would be specifically. I mean, we have an obligation because we
have a treaty. But I don't know in what capacity that help is."
With statements like that from Washington, no wonder Beijing feels
emboldened. At a press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck
Hagel this month, Chinese Defense Minister General Chang Wonquan
insisted that there would be "no compromise, no concessions" on
territorial disputes with U.S. allies.
Obama this week simply reaffirms the standard U.S. position of
neutrality on sovereignty disputes and support for peaceful resolutions
of differences, he will provide little reassurance to America's friends.
More effective would be to directly question the legitimacy and origin
of China's South China Sea claims, as State Department official Danny
Russel recently did before Congress. The President might add that
China's blockade of Second Thomas Shoal endangers the lives of
Philippine forces and violates Beijing's promises under the 2002
Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
Like Russia in Eastern Europe, China is trying to rewrite the
international order to dominate the Western Pacific. And like Vladimir
Putin, Beijing's leaders will press their advantage against weaker
powers unless America makes clear by word and deed that it will push