Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Obama's China Challenge

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.
Beijing's move 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.
In 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.
If Mr. 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 back

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