The Buzz

Barack Obama's Big South China Sea Mistake

The fifth annual Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) conference on the South China Sea, held in Washington DC last Wednesday, was a quality event, where knowledgeable experts rubbed shoulders with senior politicians and officials. Regrettably, there was not a glimmer of hope pointing to a breakthrough in the competing sovereignty claims marking the region, or the deeper strategic forces driving China and other parties.

Of particular note at the conference was the speech from Daniel Russel, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and one of the Obama Administration’s most senior Asia hands. The speech is notable for what it doesn’t say and striking in casting U.S. policy in terms of what a Chinese analyst might call the “five nots.” To quote Mr. Russel:

“Now, the US is not a claimant…these maritime and territorial disputes are not intrinsically a US–China issue. The issue is between China and its neighbors…”

On the current Philippines-initiated case at the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague:

“The United States, of course, is not a party to this arbitration and does not take a position on the merits of the case.”

And finally on the Law of the Sea Convention:

“This is as good a time as any to acknowledge (as China has often pointed out) that the United States has not acceded to the Law of the Sea Convention…”

Mr. Russel did say that “problematic behavior in the South China Sea has emerged as a serious area of friction in the U.S.–China relationship.” He also stressed that:

“President Obama and Secretary Kerry have shown that they are not afraid to tackle the biggest challenges facing U.S. foreign policy and the world. And we’re energized, here in the fourth quarter of this administration to do much more…”

So, how will American high energy promote a solution in the South China Sea?

“So we are pushing the parties to revive the spirit of cooperation embodied in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct. … In the famous words of Rich Armitage’s Dictum Number 1, ‘when you find yourself in a hole – stop digging.’ That is the advice we are giving to all the claimants: lower the temperature and create breathing room by: stopping land reclamation on South China Sea features; stopping construction of new facilities; and stopping militarization of existing facilities.”

Russel also said that Secretary Kerry would be making this point to “Chinese leaders and to the other claimants” at forthcoming ASEAN meetings.

That was the limit of the Obama Administration’s leadership on display at the CSIS conference. Frankly, it fails to meet regional expectations of what needs to be done to respond to China’s increasingly assertive behavior. Mr. Russel’s comments come after China’s incredibly hasty reclamation of some 2,000 acres of land on disputed features in the area. That contrasts with a total of five acres of land reclaimed over the last few decades by all other claimants. China has also engaged in high-risk challenging of the ships and aircraft of other countries in the area, and hasn’t ruled out declaring an Air Defense Investigation Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, as it did over the East China Sea in November 2013.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that U.S. policy is lagging behind the reality of Chinese behavior and growing regional worries. Speakers at the conference struggled with the thought that China would prioritize control of rocks and shoals ahead of good relations with ASEAN and others. But, follow China’s actions rather than its laughable claims that the island construction is for counter-piracy efforts, HADR and environmental management. Beijing calculates that it can get away with its land grab because of ASEAN incapacity, allied timidity and U.S. inaction. Nothing in Mr. Russel’s speech suggests otherwise.

How will the situation play out over coming months? I suggest four phases. First we may see a lull in reclamation activities and a curbing of some of the more egregious Chinese on-water brinksmanship until after President Xi’s visit to Washington in September. That will buy a happy visit. After that, China will calculate the time it has until the U.S. Presidential election in November 2016 to go all out in strengthening its presence in the South China Sea. That might include a declaration of an ADIZ at a time when Obama will be fading from the stage and presidential candidates will be focused on engaging with middle America. A third phase will be in early 2017 when a new U.S. administration wakes to find multiple foreign and security policy headaches covered in the White House briefing book. Then, finally, China may be amenable to freezing activity, but only with all its gains intact.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are U.S. leaders like Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, and PACOM Commander, Admiral Harry B. Harris, who would prefer to take a more concerted approach to pushing back against Beijing’s maritime adventurism. But U.S. responses are likely to remain muted. Obama has bigger fish to fry and the South China Sea is firmly in Washington’s category of things not to do, as Mr. Russel’s speech makes so dismally clear.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here