In a case of better late than never, the Obama Administration on October 27 dispatched the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen to breach China's newly-claimed 12-mile zone around one of its just-completed artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea.
This much-needed demonstration of resolve indicates that the United States is finally standing up for our long-espoused freedom of navigation and rule of international law. But more steps will be needed now that the U.S. State Department and White House are waking up to China's flagrant bullying in the Pacific region, an area that is crucial to world commerce and America's national interests.
For well over a year, China has been ignoring global protestations by pouring massive amounts of sand onto submerged coral reefs and sandbars in the Spratlys, building up enough land to sustain a military installation. Then China brazenly laid claim to 12-nautical-mile waters around its illegal formations, claiming those waters as territorial in disregard for international law, which denies any claim for manmade islands and their surrounding waters.
The U.S. response to China for months has been timid until finally it allowed a Navy destroyer to cruise through the Spratlys. A lasting and believable solution will require a broader and sustained approach.
The United States must begin to send ships routinely through and close to the Spratlys and elsewhere in the Pacific on similar "freedom of navigation" missions. But America should not carry the entire burden.
Already Japan, Australia and the Philippines have publicly supported the U.S. action in the Spratlys. In the coming months, we will need these and other nations to increase their military and merchant ship traffic in the vicinity. All free seagoing nations should exercise their rights of transit, general ship passage, and the conduct of military exercises in international waters. And that includes the waters in the vicinity of the Spratlys.
The Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, all of which have claims in the Spratlys, should be encouraged to join in this concerted effort, but they will need to see stronger U.S. leadership.
Japan, our most important ally in Asia and a maritime-dependent nation, should play a bigger supporting role in keeping the sea lanes open following new legislation that lifts some of the limits placed on its military by its pacifist constitution.
Japan in particular has much at stake in the maritime disputes. If the Chinese whiff success in the Spratlys, they could be emboldened to force their claim to the Senkakus, strategically situated islands in the East China Sea, which are administered by Japan. That would be a worst case for Japan and the United States and a serious threat to peace.
Preventing such a dire result calls for a systematic plan for the entire region. For example, naval transits through the Taiwan Straits have diminished in recent years. We can begin to route more ships through the straits, enforcing our claim to the rule of international law.
We can also communicate clearly what we are doing and why. For months, China has issued aggressive statements that make a mockery of international law, and the U.S. response has been defensive and weak. It is time now to act decisively and to finally lead again in the Pacific.