The Buzz

Obama's $5 Trillion Dollar Gift to China: The South China Sea?

Yes, President Obama should surely be congratulated for “doing something” in the South China Sea. But those somethings, a strategically confusing freedom of navigation operation (or maybe innocent passage?) near Subi Reef and now a B-52 flight near the Spratly Islands, is proof positive of how bungled the so-called “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia has become. In the end, while Washington’s challenge to Beijing’s adventurism in the South China Sea is surely needed, such actions may be too little, too confusing and too late.

The facts are obvious—America’s position in Asia is quite grim. Short of kinetic conflict (think war), and if current trends are not altered—by say a Chinese economic collapse or somehow American policy in Asia changing dramatically in the next few months—Washington will not be able to stop Beijing from eventually dominating the South China Sea. Put bluntly: there is no good way to put the proverbial slices back on the salami. And almost all of the blame rests on President Obama’s shoulders.

Obama, The “Pivot” and the Makings of a Disaster

It never had to be this way. The Obama administration’s so-called “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia was suppose to be the start of a welcomed reboot of U.S. foreign policy—a move away from the black hole of national security nightmares known as the Middle East and towards the economic opportunities and challenges of the future in the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific region. And for all the promise, all the photo-ops, all the speeches, the pivot has fallen flat—while China is now poised to gain mastery of the South China Sea, a waterway that moves over $5 trillion dollars of seaborne trade ($1 trillion of which is U.S. goods) per year.

Where Did It Go Wrong? Enter Scarborough Shoal

If the pivot to Asia was to achieve one thing, and one thing only, it would be to support and reinforce existing alliance structures while at the same time help shape China’s peaceful rise—and restrain any ideas of altering the status quo. If the pivot were truly conceptualized in this way, at least in theory, anytime Beijing undertook an aggressive action, especially an action that could alter the status quo, Washington would ensure that China’s coercive moves were restrained in some way. So if we are to pick a starting point where the pivot went from grandiose words to meaningless slogans it was Washington’s failure to stop Chinese actions at Scarborough Shoal, well within the Philippines’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As Ely Ratner, now a senior adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, explained in these very pages back in 2013:

After weeks of discussions, demarches and negotiations, U.S. officials in mid-June brokered what they thought was a deal for a mutual withdrawal. Exhausted, outnumbered and lacking viable alternatives, Manila withdrew its remaining ships under the facing-saving auspices of an oncoming typhoon. China, on the other hand, failed to comply with the agreed-upon deadline and retained its maritime vessels at the shoal, where they remain today on near-constant patrol.”

Ratner goes on to conclude:

“Scarborough Reef was a tactical victory for China, but it also revealed Beijing’s formula of exploiting weaker states, dividing multilateral institutions and keeping the United States on the sidelines. To stem the dangerous trend of mounting Chinese assertiveness in its near seas, Washington should focus on building partner capacity, strengthening regional institutions and ultimately making clear to Beijing that the “Scarborough Model” will no longer be cost-free.”

Sadly, we did not take Mr. Ratner’s advice.

How Does America Regain the Initiative?