“Obama administration blew it at the last moment”

After the strong message that turned into a muddle in the South China Sea, James Holmes writes what the United States can do to repair the damage, “After finally making a sensible move in the South China Sea, the Obama administration blew it at the last moment. In late October, the Aegis destroyer USS Lassen, a vessel optimized for air and missile defense, cruised past the Subi Reef, located more than 500 miles from China’s Hainan Island. Subi is one of the nine or so islands China has fabricated from undersea rocks. Until recently, Subi was underwater at high tide — but since China started reclaiming islands by dredging up the seafloor, Beijing has been using its recently created flyspeck at Subi to claim adjacent waters and skies as its property. The Lassen cruise was intended to demonstrate U.S. support for freedom of navigation in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. But by calling the expedition an “innocent passage,” anonymous officials from the Barack Obama administration bungled away the legal and diplomatic gains”.

Holmes goes on to mention “Officialdom must learn from the Lassen debacle. This means staying on message in future freedom of navigation challenges; predicting China’s next moves in the controversy; and sculpting tactics and operations to outwit and outmaneuver Beijing. The United States and its allies are in the right. Chinese officials correctly point out that fellow claimants, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, have reclaimed islets in the Spratlys and Paracels. But unlike Beijing, Hanoi and Manila do not claim the seas and airspace around their man-made islands or seek to dictate the terms whereby traffic may pass.  Accordingly, the Vietnamese and Philippine claims pose little, if any, danger to free passage through regional seaways”.

The scale of the threat from China is made clear when Holmes writes “China’s claims, by contrast, would erase the principle that no one owns the high seas. Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, meaning that what China says goes. Sovereignty means nothing if not physical control of territory within certain borders on the map. Laws enacted in Beijing, that is, would supersede treaties and customary international law. To preserve the law of the sea, the United States and like-minded countries must gird themselves to defend it — and, indeed, the U.S.-led international order — in a drawn-out twilight struggle”.

Holmes makes the valid point that “First of all, let’s learn from past blunders. Under the doctrine of innocent passage, ships must refrain from certain actions while traversing a coastal state’s 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. For example, passersby may not use force against the coastal state, conduct exercises simulating the use of force, conduct flight operations, or perform underwater surveys. These are all activities China wants to forbid — which is why it refers to freedom of navigation through the China seas as innocent passage. It wants fellow seafaring states to assent to similar restrictions. This is why it’s crucial not to use China’s preferred language in public statements and diplomatic correspondence. If Washington depicts the Lassen voyage as an innocent passage, it implies that it accepts the rules Beijing wants to enforce around its man-made islands and throughout 80 to 90 percent of the South China Sea. Washington’s message should be precisely the reverse: that it rejects China’s vision unequivocally”.

Interestingly he makes the point that “sending a uniform message is tougher than it sounds. There’s no charitable way to interpret the words coming from anonymous sources. In the best case, linguistic sloppiness or ignorance of the law may have been at fault, in which case some remedial education should do the trick. In the worst case, though, someone deliberately sought to sabotage administration policy. That’s far more troublesome. Sci-fi legend Robert Heinlein devised a “razor,” or logical thumb rule, warning against ascribing to villainy what can be ascribed to incompetence”.

Holmes later writes that “Washington must clearly convey that it is upholding not just freedom of navigation in Southeast Asia but freedom of the sea, as manifest in customary and treaty law. Surrendering the full range of nautical freedoms would be relinquishing major elements of the law of the sea. It would also be abandoning the South China Sea as a military theater. Surveillance flights, underwater surveys, and other activities permitted within the maritime commons help acquaint armed forces with the operational setting. Try fighting on unfamiliar ground, against an adversary who’s intimately familiar with it. That’s a losing proposition. Which is precisely the point for China. Beijing hopes to gain a military advantage through lawfare, deploying inventive interpretations of international law as a weapon. It wants to convince the United States to forgo its legal prerogatives and its preparedness for naval conflict in Southeast Asia in the bargain. The island disputes, then, are about far more than legal etiquette or diplomatic one-upmanship. This is about the United States’ ability to stay engaged in a region populated by allies and friends. This is a high-stakes game, not a quarrel over a bunch of rocks or legal trivia”.

He makes the important point that “Washington, then, must be a better coalition-builder than Beijing is a coalition-breaker. It must remain strong in Southeast Asia, reassuring allies like Manila that it can keep its defense commitments. That means convincing allies the U.S. military can fight and win. Signing away its rights to conduct wargames, fly aircraft, and conduct surveys of the surroundings would work against U.S. combat readiness. Far from reassuring allies and friends, letting combat readiness slip would dishearten them — undercutting America’s strategic position in Southeast Asia. That’s what’s at stake in the tussle over innocent passage. Beyond shaping the strategic environment, Beijing will probably reach for the smallest stick possible to enforce its policies. No sane government relishes a fight with a peer adversary. The costs are steep, the hazards and uncertainties many”.

He ends “Washington must be imaginative and creative when plotting strategy for the South China Sea, and it must pay Chinese operational creativity due homage. Foresight schooled by hindsight represents the best weapon in America’s intellectual arsenal”.


One Response to ““Obama administration blew it at the last moment””

  1. “Leave it to the United States to put teeth into the tribunal’s finding” | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] This choice is of course quite binary and the Obama administration has had plenty of chances to show its mettle against China and its vastly increased territorial expansion, some have been successful while others have been a disaster. […]

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