SYDNEY -- There are two ways to see the U.S. Navy's freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. We can see it is as a modest legal maneuver, designed to assert Washington's interpretation of some rather arcane and contested points of international maritime law. Or we can see this week's operation as a big strategic move in the new power politics of Asia.
Seen this second way, it was designed to reassert America's naval preponderance in the western Pacific in the face of Beijing's increasingly bold and forthright challenge, and thereby to defend the traditional U.S.-led regional order from China's drive to displace American leadership and create a new Sino-centric strategic system in Asia.
Washington hopes that the rest of us will see it as both of these things -- a routine legal maneuver and a forthright assertion of strategic resolve. It is likely to be disappointed. This week's events may simply reinforce how badly Washington misunderstands the challenge it faces in Asia.
The U.S. is not defending any general right of freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, because nothing China is doing on or around the islands it occupies there can credibly be construed as challenging that general right.
Look at the legal aspect first. Washington is clearly trying to present the operation in this light, as a routine assertion of U.S. interpretation of maritime law. But it is not saying exactly what legal position this operation is supposed to assert.
One thing is for certain: it is not defending any general right of freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, because nothing China is doing on or around the islands it occupies there can credibly be construed as challenging that general right. Washington's frequent oblique suggestions to the contrary are frankly misleading.
There are three genuine legal issues the U.S. may have been trying to pursue. One is the right of "innocent passage" through acknowledged territorial sea, which America asserts and China perhaps disputes. Another is the legitimacy of claiming a 12 nautical mile territorial sea zone based on a feature which is submerged at high tide, which America denies and China may be trying to assert. Third, America may be contesting China's claim to the feature itself, and hence to any territorial sea around it.
If China retaliates in any substantive way, for example by enhancing its military forces or posture around the Spratlys, then Washington faces a very tough choice indeed.
Of these it seems the most likely rationale of this week's operation is the second option. A State Department spokesman described the transit as occurring in international waters, which rules out the first option, and the third would imply that America had abandoned its long-held refusal to take any view of the merits of the various competing claims throughout the South China Sea.
In reality, however, it hardly matters, because it is perfectly obvious, despite Washington's claims, that the legal issue is a pretext for an operation whose real purpose was strategic. The Obama administration is trying to use the legal device of a freedom of navigation operation to show its resolve in the escalating power-political rivalry with China over the future leadership of Asia.
How well that works depends on how China responds. It will be a clear success if China backs off from its assertive behavior, stops developing its island bases and generally returns to quiet acceptance of U.S. primacy in Asia. But the chances of this are vanishingly small.
Washington still expects Beijing to back off at the first faint sign of U.S. resolve. It doesn't grasp that Xi Jinping may be at least as determined to change the Asian order as Barack Obama is to preserve it, and that he may believe he holds the better hand.
It is far more likely that China will either ignore the U.S. transits, or retaliate. If China just issues angry statements and then carries on as before, America's big move looks weak and ineffective. If China retaliates in any substantive way, for example by enhancing its military forces or posture around the Spratlys, then Washington faces a very tough choice indeed.
If it backs off meekly in the face of Chinese escalation, the administration would look even weaker than it does now, and suffer grave damage to its credibility both at home, in Asia and globally. But a robust response would risk further countermoves by China, and further escalation towards open conflict. That would entail huge economic costs and little chance of quick and easy victory for America. No U.S. president could lightly take this path.
It is hard to see how getting itself in this position looks smart for Washington. The administration seems to be assuming that a low-risk, low-cost routine legal maneuver like a freedom of navigation operation could serve as a decisive move in a high-risk, high-stakes strategic competition. That suggests that America still does not understand the nature of the contest it is now waging with China.
Washington still expects Beijing to back off at the first faint sign of U.S. resolve. It doesn't grasp that Xi Jinping may be at least as determined to change the Asian order as Barack Obama is to preserve it, and that he may believe he holds the better hand. Everything Xi has done over the past few years suggests very plainly that he does indeed believe this. And everything Washington had done since the "pivot" suggests it doesn't understand its adversary in Asia.
America therefore needs to stop pretending to itself that it can do this on the cheap.
China today is a very powerful and ambitious country, led by a man who really is determined to build new model of great power relations in Asia to replace the regional order based on U.S. primacy. There are no low-risk, low-cost ways to respond to this challenge. The more Washington tries to respond in such ways, as it has done this week, the more plainly it signals that America lacks the resolve to take the much tougher measures needed to preserve a strong role for itself in Asia.
America can only constrain China's growing power in Asia if it is unambiguously willing to impose big costs and risks on Beijing, and that can only be done by accepting equally onerous costs and risks itself. America therefore needs to stop pretending to itself that it can do this on the cheap.
It also needs to consider what kind of role it really needs to play in Asia, and what it is willing to pay to play that role. It may well be that maintaining its traditional primacy in the face of China's power will cost America more than it is worth. If so, Washington needs to conceive and negotiate a new role in Asia which preserves the most important U.S. interests at a cost America is willing to pay over the long term. And that would mean accommodating China's ambitions to some degree.
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