Obama Gets It Right in the South China Sea

President Barack Obama sent the Navy in harm's way this week and it turned out fine. Having gotten what it's going to get, at least for now, from China, the Obama administration at last challenged China's absurd claim of sovereignty over far distant artificial islands it's built in the South China Sea. Obama had the Navy send the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen and patrol aircraft to penetrate supposed territorial waters and airspace at Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands near the Philippines.

The successful move in the Western Pacific -- which some Chinese military leaders have vowed to drive the US from -- comes at a good time for the Obama administration. For Secretary of State John Kerry is taking part in Vienna in an international conference on the future of Syria. Principally convened by, er, Russia.

Despite warnings from some in the People's Liberation Army if the US Navy went ahead and did this, there was no Chinese military response aside from a pro forma shadowing of Lassen by a Chinese guided missile destroyer and patrol boat.

China reacted with angry rhetoric, but not action, to USS Lassen's sailing by a Chinese-claimed island near the Philippines.

Of course, somewhere over the horizon, off in the direction of Singapore, was the heavy metal thunder of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and her strike group of aircraft and supporting ships.

Sending in Lassen, a mere destroyer, was a relatively subtle move. Having Teddy Roosevelt over the horizon was forceful.

Who was it who said "Speak softly and carry a big stick," anyway?

In the three days since Obama sent Lassen to the Spratlys, which are not surprisingly also claimed by the nearby Philippines, there has been no Chinese response aside from some angry rhetoric.

Ambassador Max Baucus was summoned to the Chinese foreign ministry where he was told by a vice foreign minister that the move was "extremely irresponsible" and a "serious provocation." There was also another warning from a Chinese general.

Naturally, however, this was only the first in what should prove to be an ongoing series of what the Navy calls "freedom of navigation operations."

Why do we care about the South China Sea? I discussed this at length here a week and a half ago.

The short answer is because it's one of the most strategically significant bodies of water on what is a water world. Nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by oceans, with nearly half of that the Pacific Ocean of which the South China Sea is a part. Ninety percent of the world's goods and fossil fuel resources are moved by ship, with more than a third of that passing through the South China Sea, which is also a repository of vast stores of resources including fisheries and oil and natural gas.

Despite sharing the South China Sea with a half-dozen nations, China is intimidating its neighbors with aggressive tactics and unheard of claims of sovereignty. It's also engaged in a big build-up even though its military already easily overawe anything that its neighbors can muster, with more ships than all its neighbors combined.

The US has ignored China's claims over virtually the entire South China Sea throughout, but hadn't sent a ship within the supposed 12-mile territorial waters of China's claimed islands since 2012. The Obama administration had high hopes for presidential-level rapport with President Xi Jinping and big breakthroughs in US-China relations. However, with the signal exception of climate change, these hopes have essentially not proved out.

With Xi's late September visit to Washington and the White House state dinner for China in the rear view mirror, it was past time to have the Navy again sail where it has for more than a century.

While demonstrating continued resolve in the South China Sea is a must, it's only part of an overall strategy of engagement with China to be pursued as the US executes its rather delayed Asia-Pacific Pivot.

The climate change pacts -- which in part mirror those struck by California under Governor Jerry Brown with various constituent elements of the People's Republic -- show that some progress is possible, that a creative tension rather than simply a new cold war can be achieved. Indeed, though Obama's grand hopes have not been fulfilled, there has been some progress on other fronts beyond the commercial. China is committed to more participation in international humanitarian efforts.

Even with regard to the South China Sea, the PRC and US have struck formal agreements on how to handle military-related tensions. A Convention on Unplanned Encounters at Sea was signed last November and a new agreement was struck on aerial encounters during Xi's visit to Washington. And Xi said that China would not militarize its claimed islands, natural and otherwise. Though that needs to be taken with a substantial portion of salt, as three runways capable of accommodating jet fighters appear to have been cleared. But it's a nice sentiment on Xi's part.

We do, after all, all live on the same planet.

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