- - Thursday, October 8, 2015


President Obama seems to have learned a lesson from his fecklessness in Syria. He has listened to the pleas of Ash Carter, the secretary of defense, to assert the freedom of the seas in Southeast Asia.

The Financial Times quotes senior American officials that within the next fortnight the U.S. Navy will challenge China’s claim to incorporate vast stretches of the South China Sea into its territorial waters. U.S. Navy ships will enter the 12-mile limit which China has drawn around a group of coral shoals where it has been scooping up mud and gravel from the ocean floor to build islands of thousands of acres for military air strips.

The new bases permit China to go beyond the occasional naval feints to threaten Taiwan, and to contest islands long claimed and occupied by Japan in the East China Sea. These new bases, hundreds of miles from mainland Chinese ports, are justified by ancient maps showing vague Chinese claims in the region. The bases could enable the projection of strategic power. They already menace nearby Philippines and Vietnam.

The White House has been reluctant to permit the Navy to exercise time-honored rights of passage through one of the world’s most important commercial waterways. Mr. Obama’s reluctance to follow his predecessors was justified by the state visit, just concluded, of Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, and by Mr. Obama’s general withdrawal of American power and authority around the world. His lack of resolve nearly everywhere undermines the Obama administration’s celebrated “pivot to Asia.” This “pivot” is part of its worldwide strategy, such as it might be.

Despite glowing expectations, Mr. Obama got nowhere in talking to Mr. Xi about the major issues in dispute with China. These include the hacking of U.S. cyber networks, violation of intellectual properties of American and other foreign companies, and trade issues, like the manipulation of China’s currency. China devalued its currency on the eve of the Xi visit.

But no issue between the two countries carries such dangerous long-term implications, with the possibility of confrontation, as the aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. This aggression could be more important than any of the fictitious red lines Mr. Obama has drawn in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East or the belligerent provocations of Vladimir Putin, first in Ukraine and now in Syria.

A challenge of the traditional right of peaceful passage through international waters has been anticipated. China’s elaborate and rapid efforts to create a “blue water” navy are still in their infancy. China’s right, as an emerging great power, to build a modern naval fleet, has long been recognized, and given the difficulties of building and maintaining aircraft carriers — China has rebuilt one bought from Ukraine and is building another — the United States might assist a “peacefully emerging” China.

But signs of aggressive behavior by the Chinese have put on hold consideration of that kind of open military collaboration. In fact, China has generally rejected routine military-to-military communication, which is the practice among the major powers to avoid incidents. The peaceful passage through international waters must be preserved and the valid claims of neighboring states honored. This is what is at risk, and better to get some things settled now than at a later time when a challenge would be more fraught with unhappy consequences.

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