South China Sea face off: Anxious hours in Pivotland

This was an anxious week in Pivotland©, the Beltway district in which milsec types congregate to formulate, promote, and profit from the forward strategy toward the PRC.

Philippine and US Navy ships in South China Sea

Philippine and US Navy ships in South China Sea

President Obama has been laggard in executing a cherished pivot initiative, the defiant US Navy sail through within 12 miles of the PRC’s faux-island holdings in the South China Sea.

Bonnie Glaser, the Princess of the Pivot at CSIS, all-capped her frustration in a tweet on October 16:

US-China confrontation looms in troubled waters of South China Sea. Stop talking and DO THE FONOP ALREADY!

“FONOP” as in “Freedom of Navigation Op.”  I might point out that a naval sail through within a country’s claimed 12-mile territorial limit is not automatically a piece of sovereignty-repudiating outrance (attack to excess).  Naval vessels are free to sail within other countries’ 12 mile limit in innocent passage from Point A to Point B.

In fact, the PLA Navy just did that, sending flotilla through US territorial seas in the Aleutian Islands, pointedly, in September just prior to Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States.  And the US Navy was good with that:

“The five PLAN ships transited expeditiously and continuously through the Aleutian Island chain in a manner consistent with international law.”

The Chinese stunt appeared to me to be a successful piece of inoculation by the PRC, one that neutralized the “presumptuous Chinese humbled by superior US power in the place they wish was their back yard” narrative that I think the China hawks hope to advance by executing a South China Sea sail through.

And it emphasized the unwelcome point that any South China Sea sail through under international law is meaningless in terms of the territorial, island-building, and sovereignty assertions the US is purporting to challenge.

So, sail through upside rather limited.

What about the downside?

Perhaps President Obama is mindful that a sail through, in addition to serving as a polarizing piece of anti-PRC theater for the military pivot, will provide the PRC with a further pretext for overtly and irrevocably militarizing the islands.

Which is already happening:

(Officials) with China’s foreign ministry are claiming military facilities on a series of artificial islands are “for defense purposes only” in reaction to “high-profile display(s) of military strength and frequent and large-scale military drills by certain countries and their allies in the South China Sea …”

Referring to the US and its several multi-national maritime security exercises in the region, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying statement came a day after a joint US and Australian statement issued on Tuesday in which Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Australian Minister of Defense Marise Payne urged caution on militarizing the South China Sea region.

He is also, I imagine, mindful that sailthrough enthusiasm among our allies is not strong or even universal, despite a flurry of statements and articles that appear to be attempting to logroll the White House by pre-emptively declaring that US credibility is at stake if the much-bruited, never officially announced, and tactically and strategically dubious sail through doesn’t happen.

I would guess that allies’ enthusiasm for sending naval vessels to participate in the sailthrough, thereby exposing themselves to the PRC’s economic and diplomatic retaliation, is not high.

And for some allies, even providing lip service to US efforts to uphold the international order against Chinese encroachments seems to be a challenge.

ROK President Park’s recent visit to Washington apparently did not yield all that the US desired in terms of pivot-related enthusiasm.

Park has worked to warm up ties with China and raised some eyebrows in Washington when she attended Beijing’s military parade to mark the end of World War Two last month.

Obama said the United States wanted to see a strong South Korean relationship with China, just as it wanted such a relationship itself, but Washington wanted to see Seoul speak out when Beijing did things that weakened international rules.

Obama was apparently referring to China’s behavior in pursuit of maritime claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, which has alarmed Asian neighbors.

President Park took a decidedly different tack:

Ms. Park said several times during the press conference that China’s cooperation is needed with the US on issues such as nuclear talks with North Korea to economic development. She said her government wants to “fully utilize” China’s influence in regional issues.

The conventional narrative is that the ROK’s current tilt toward the PRC results from a combination of fear and greed.

But a third reason is that the United States is locked into a deep-tongued, slobbery embrace with Shinzo Abe’s Japan as America’s indispensable pivot partner.

South Korean hostility toward Japan is, of course, partly related toward Prime Minister Abe’s ostentatious nostalgia for a powerful Japan of the kind that killed Korea’s men, raped its women, and sought to obliterate its culture during the 1930s and 40s.

But it has more to do with the fact that the ROK and Japan are locked in a zero-sum economic battle and Abe is doing his best to eat South Korea’s dosirak:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is continuing with “Abenomics,” an economic policy based on massive quantitative easing and weakening of the yen, which Japan claims will save it from its “lost” two decades.

While Japan has partly succeeded in boosting its economy, that seems to be based on the sacrifice of other countries, of which Korea has been hit the hardest.

Korea is concerned that it will be the biggest victim of Japan’s “beggar thy neighbor” policy.

“Countries like Korea and Germany, where exports take a huge part and the domestic market is relatively small, are damaged most. Korea is especially so, as its export items overlap with those of Japan,” Lee said.

Korea has been suffering from the massive quantitative easing by Japan as the won/yen rate has fallen to the lowest level in more than seven years. The Hyundai Research Institute warns that Korea may see its exports, the only sustaining pillar of an economy that has lost steam, decrease by 8.8% due to the weak yen.

And:

(The) international community seems to be tolerating Japan’s manipulation as it has been in such a long slump.

For “international community” read “United States” in my opinion.   The Obama administration is completely in the tank for Abe since keeping Abe happy is essential if he is going to push unpopular  pivot-friendly initiatives like constitutional reinterpretation and Futenma relocation down the throats of the Japanese electorate.

In self-defense, the ROK has little choice but to tilt to the PRC.

So far the pivot, in addition to delivering tensions with the PRC, has done a good job of revealing divisions and uncertainty among America’s allies.

And it will be rather difficult for the sailthrough to deliver the galvanizing “freedom (+ Vietnam) vs. PRC despotism” confrontation that papers over the rifts, something that I imagine weighs on President Obama’s mind as he considers his options.

If the sail through happens—and even if it doesn’t—the United States will continue to wrestle with fundamental and intractable contradictions within the alliance.

And undoubtedly, the Beltway consensus will be that the only way out is more, better, and more resolute escalation.

Or, as the busy pivoteers at the Pentagon and think tanks put it: Ka-ching!

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

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