- - Thursday, May 28, 2015


Americans and Chinese officials will stand toe to toe in Singapore this weekend at the annual Shangri-la conference of international war-making officials. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Adm. Sun Jianguo, the deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, will have an audience of military and civilian strategists from the region as well as from the major powers.

The exchange will be a test of the Obama administration’s ability to halt the remarkable Chinese aggression in the important South China Sea. The Chinese have staked out claims, based on ancient dynasty maps, to three-quarters of that sea, hundreds of miles beyond its southernmost province. The South China Sea is one of the most important maritime thoroughfares; half the world’s merchant ships pass through it.

In the past the Chinese have ignored the annual Singapore meeting. Adm. Sun’s appearance is accompanied by a statement of Chinese military strategy, and the importance of the document is not only its aggressive tone but that it is the first public statement of military strategy.

The United States and its allies are pleased to have, along with the boastful bombast, an official indication of Chinese intentions for its rapid military buildup. There is little comfort in the language. The paper calls for “active defense” of Chinese territory and “core national interest.”

The Chinese have turned one of the shoals in the Spratly Islands, on the Philippines continental shelf, into a runway capable of launching military aircraft. They appear to be proceeding with similar landfill operations to create other islands. Continued Chinese island-building could give them operational control of strategic waterways which Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan claim.

The U.S. response is a part of what Hillary Clinton, as secretary of State, called the “Asian pivot,” later becoming basic Obama administration foreign policy. The policy so far has been mostly talk about the historic role of the United States in defense of the right of free passage through international waters. There has been at least one surveillance overflight, as reported by the Chinese, challenging Chinese dominance.

China says its South China Sea claims are non-negotiable. Taiwan walked into a trap with a call for negotiations among all the parties for splitting what are believed to be rich oil and gas deposits in the sea. This fits into Beijing’s strategy of establishing its hold on the area, including its assurance that its facilities would be available in such international crises as the recent disappearance of civilian aircraft in the region. This gives Beijing added negotiating strength. This was part of the pitch of the China’s Defense Ministry in releasing the strategy statement, accusing the United States of creating problems by encouraging opposition to China’s expansive claims.

Washington says it takes no position on the contending claims, and only insists on the right of innocent passage through international waters. The United States has apparently honored the 12-mile limit for international naval claims on the new islands. A Pentagon spokesman, defending the surveillance flights, says that “all our flights and all of our ship movements are through international airspace and international waters, part of our mission to defend freedom of navigation.”

The Singapore exchange will be a test for Mr. Carter, still smarting from reaction to his criticism of the Iraqi military for its performance in encounters with the Islamic State. Washington has so far had no strategic answer to China’s familiar two steps forward, one step back approach to what could become the most important flashpoint in U.S.-China relations.

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