China hawks crosshair Obama on South China Sea

By Peter Lee

The Shangri-La Dialogue of defense ministers in Singapore wasn’t just about confronting the People’s Republic of China; it was about U.S. hawks end-arounding President Obama to achieve a cherished goal: escalating confrontation with the PRC via a provocative sail by of one of China’s reclaimed-island holdings in the South China Sea.

The Shangri-La Dialogue has become a showcase for displaying the current designated pivot strongman.

Last year, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe took center stage. This year, it’s U.S. secretary of defense Ash Carter.

Carter is now the U.S. point man for Asia.  It is a matter of conventional wisdom among Beltway foreign policy pundits that Obama is a lame duck, Kerry is a hopeless ass, and Ash Carter is the valiant battle elephant who is our last hope for victory over the Chinese.

Here’s a fascinating take from The Australian, pre-Shangri-La.

…the Obama administration… is widely seen as having been weak on defense, poor at foreign policy and ineffective in Asia. Mr Carter, these sources say, is now widely seen as the leading figure on Asia in the Obama administration … One former senior U.S. national security official told The Australian that the recent visit to Beijing by Secretary of State John Kerry had not made any difference to the calculations involved. No one listens to anything he says and he says it interminably,” the official said.

In the run up to Shangri-La, Carter epitomized the China-hawk approach.  In a speech in Hawaii, pre-Shangri-La, he declared:

“There should be no mistake about this: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world,” said Carter, who has ordered the military to develop options for more assertive U.S. demonstrations of its right to transit the region.

Carter backed up his statement by ordering a flyby of an offending Chinese island in the South China Sea by a U.S. surveillance aircraft with CNN on board.  The Chinese Navy communications guy futilely radioed “This is the Chinese navy … This is the Chinese navy … Please go away … to avoid misunderstanding,” which was apparently sufficiently “ominous,” in the words of CNN correspondent Jim Sciutto, to materialize the Red Menace.

The atmospherics for the Shangri-La meeting were further enhanced by the blockbuster report that the PRC had placed two self-propelled howitzers on an island in the South China Sea … last month … but since removed … no pictures available, so sorry … giving everybody a chance to shake their heads at China’s egregious behavior in militarizing the South China Sea and sending it into the conference wearing the bad guy dunce cap.

And to convey ringing resolve (and assuage the fears of local allies that the U.S. might wander off if things got too tough), Carter said:

“We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”

As I added on Twitter, “And if we’re not, somebody dig me up and tell me.”

Meanwhile, the nadir in fluffing was perhaps attained by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, with an article titled: Carter Defends South China Sea at Shangri-La.

Please hold your derisive snorts, since CSIS is laboring mightily to establish itself as the go-to think-tank for muscular U.S. policy in the South China Sea.  Michael Green, the lead author of the article, was an East Asia specialist on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush presidency.

CSIS also maintains the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which is supposed to translate satellite imagery, video, and news reports into damning tittle tattle that will hold the PRC accountable, at least in the public sphere for its South China Sea transgressions.  (Interestingly, a Philippines news outlet reported  that ATMI had said that its analysts had detected guns on two PRC outposts claimed by the Philippines, a claim that, as far as I can tell, ATMI has not made itself, nor has this been reported by any major U.S. news outlet).

Carter faithfully hit his marks at Shangri-La, declaring America’s undying fealty to Freedom of Navigation, excoriating the PRC for its island-reclamation shenanigans, and setting the table for the widely-anticipated U.S. gambit: a sail through near the detested islands to repudiate PRC sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and demonstrate that the U.S., the world’s premier maritime power, is the top dog in South China Sea.

The PRC kept its head down, avoiding public engagement with its critics, indeed declining to conduct the exciting “spittle fights” i.e. mutual tit-for-tat that previously characterized PRC interactions at the conference.

The delegation head, one Admiral Sun Jianguo, was determinedly low key and conciliatory.  Sun carefully referred to a detailed briefing book in explaining the PRC position.  For some inexplicable reason, he declined to extemporize in the journo scrum and reward the panda-kicking scribes with a nice off-the-cuff clanger.  For that, the admiral had to be punished, at least on Twitter.  In one of those can’t win moments, Sun was indicted by Bonnie Glaser, a CSIS stalwart for, in her mind, achieving the exact opposite of what he had tried to accomplish.

“People will leave here with even more anxiety,” says @BonnieGlaser after Adm. Sun’s boilerplate response.

The coverage, however, took a very interesting and rather ugly turn with an article by Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View titled, China’s Military Isn’t Worried About Obama, which instead ascribed attitudes of barely concealed contempt to the Chinese delegation:

Chinese military officials attending a major security conference in Singapore over the weekend made clear that they have no intention of halting their aggressive activities in the South China Sea, and they are confident that U.S. President Barack Obama is not going to be able to stop them… The main takeaway for many of us Westerners present was that People’s Liberation Army is feeling confident, and it has little respect for an Obama administration that talks big about confronting China but has yet to lay out a clear strategy for doing so.

A rather odd characterization of the PRC delegation, which it seems had been instructed to keep its head down and not give the U.S. an opportunity to situate it anywhere on the cocky/truculent/assertive/aggressive/asshole spectrum.  The title of a Bloomberg Business article, Nice Words From China and U.S. Fail to Dim South China Sea Tensions, gives an idea of what was apparently a rather low-key vibe.

Indeed, Admiral Sun, as a pretender of low rank a.k.a. not a defense minister, was denied the privilege of a sidebar meeting with Secretary Carter.  Instead, Carter blew off Sun’s speech to the conference to jet to Vietnam to talk up providing $18 million worth of patrol boats to bedevil the PRC in the South China Sea.

And the general spin (and activity) over the last few weeks has very much been of the “Ash Carter’s the new sheriff in town & the PRC should be quaking in its boots” variety.  Has Carter no mojo?

Even more remarkable was Rogin’s characterization of PRC attitudes toward Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama:

Two different conference-goers who met with Chinese officials told me that the Chinese saw further weakness when Secretary of State John Kerry visited Beijing in May.

… China’s attitude toward Obama is akin to a patron at an open bar that is set to close down soon. When the next president takes office, he or she will probably have to take a tougher line with Beijing. But while Obama remains in office, the Chinese are drinking up as much as they can.

Carter hit his expected marks, the PRC delegation was unable to muster any defiance, and everything seems to be chugging along per plan.  Why choose this juncture to crap down the administration’s neck?

Here’s a clue, also from Rogin’s article:

Lawmakers also told me they had a hard time figuring out whether the U.S. was going to respect China’s demand that U.S. ships stay 12 miles away from its newly built islands. Carter stated clearly on Saturday that China has no right to assert a 12-mile international water control area for reclaimed land. But Admiral Harry Harris, the new Pacific Command chief, told lawmakers that the administration was still debating whether or not to challenge the 12-mile claim.

“There is no 12-mile barrier around these reclaimed lands. To respect that would be a de facto recognition of what the Chinese are trying to achieve,” (Republican Senator John) McCain said in Singapore. “We believe that what Secretary Carter said was important. Now we want to see it translated into action.”

Aha.  The purpose of the article, at least for Rogin’s China-hawk sources, is clearly to log roll President Obama & force his hand to do the sailby.  The proposition: Right now everybody thinks Obama’s a wuss.  If he doesn’t do it, everybody will know he’s a wuss.

Strikingly. this crude maneuver is standard operating procedure for the China hawks in their current campaign.

As The Australian wrote in its backgrounder, the first leak of the sailby idea to the Wall Street Journal was also part of a plan to box in President Obama:

A wide range of Washington sources said The Wall Street Journal story had been leaked by the U.S. Pacific Command, which was extremely concerned about Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.

Since the appearance of the story in the Journal, momentum in favor of the freedom of navigation action has increased.

The effect of the leak is that if the Obama administration now does not undertake a freedom of navigation action, it will be seen to have backed away from asserting America’s core traditional position.

So Rogin’s article, including its remarkably dismissive treatment of the U.S. president, is simply rinse & repeat: more pressure on Obama from with the U.S. China hawk quadrant to greenlight the sailby — even if the Chinese dragon was doing its best to purr like a conciliatory kitten at Shangri-La.

Maybe the China hawks think, “The earlier the better”, escalate before the PRC gets too strong & too dug in in the South China Sea.  Or maybe they think, this is our best chance to sideline the other options and lock in an aggressive policy.

And maybe they’re playing tag team with Hillary Clinton, whose partner in the creation of the pivot at the State Department, Kurt Campbell, has been quite active in promoting the current aggressive policy.

Rogin again:

(F)or presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, there is more urgency (to an aggressive PRC policy). Already, her prospective Republican opponents are pointing out that as secretary of state, she was the lead of the administration’s “pivot to Asia,” a policy her advisors have said she will run on. This weekend, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin released a statement calling the policy “entirely hollow” and incapable of confronting Chinese naval assertiveness.

“While Secretary Clinton declared in 2010 that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is in the national interest of the United States, she failed to back up this tough talk with strong action. The Chinese have noticed and acted accordingly,” Walker said. “A serious American response is necessary.”

This is flapdoodle. Those Americans who care deeply about the pivot (a pretty small number, I reckon) are not going to vote against Hillary because Obama screwed up the pivot after she retired as Secretary of State.  In particular, with the election 18 months away, spare me the “urgency”.

My dark suspicion is that Hillary Clinton wants to inherit her PRC crisis from Obama — not pay the diplomatic and political price of fomenting it herself (or endure the hassle of balancing the conflicting demands of her liberal base & the influential Beltway hawks) after she becomes president.

And the China hawks are happy to oblige, albeit at the cost of prudence, President Obama’s reputation, and indeed his effectiveness in dealing with the PRC for the remainder of his term.

There will be financial, economic, and human costs as well.  Here’s hoping they don’t get out of hand.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of U.S. policy with Asian and world affairs.

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