Actually, that was a title of a post I wrote in July 2010, before island-building, before the Senkaku crises, before the rare earths brouhaha, even before Hillary Clinton declared that the US had a “national interest” in freedom of navigation at the 2010 ASEAN foreign ministers’ conference in Hanoi and formally kicked off the “pivot”.
I offer it as a reminder to the indignant commentators who declare we’re just out in the South China Sea responding to the PRC threat, a theme serendipitously sounded in an op-ed in The Australian by the Lowy Institute’s Alan Dupont after I thought I had finished this piece, but not too late some last-minute cut and paste:
Fairfax columnist Hugh White, for example, believes US policy makers have long believed that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are a strategic opportunity rather than a problem for the US, allowing them to “cast Beijing as a bullying and aggressive rising power and themselves as the indispensable guardians of regional order and international law”.
These portrayals misrepresent the main causes of the rising tensions in the South China Sea and the issues at stake for Australia and the region.
The genesis of the current imbroglio was Beijing’s 2012 decision to prioritise the South China Sea and initiate an extensive, unprecedented land reclamation program on disputed islands that it occupied or planned to occupy.
That’s leaving out a big chunk of history, including all the stuff Hillary Clinton was involved in before she left office.
I cover the current efforts in wishful historiography in a piece at Asia Times. It is keyed to more alarming piece of opinion management than Dupont’s measured op-ed, a Japanese contribution courtesy of Yomiuri Shimbun that included this map illustrating the assertion that US intervention in the South China Sea is necessary to bottle up the PRC’s strategic nuclear submarine fleet:
It’s a pretty brazen showing of the containment hoof and involves a leapfrog from the previous “freedom of navigation” nonsense to a more straightforward (but in its implications for a nuclear arms race and the problem of trying to achieve first-strike supremacy over a nuclear adversary wary and armed to the teeth much riskier) military containment strategy.
[I]sn’t it interesting how the US has converted a PRC “core interest” in its vital near beyond sea lanes in the South China Sea into a US “core interest” in securing the South China Sea 8000 miles away against unrestricted PRC submarine traffic?
Now, of course, the DoD has a new boss—Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; and PACCOM has a new commander—Admiral Harry Harris, and the general consensus is that the muscular defense sector has wrestled China policy away from the milquetoastian White House. Interestingly, Admiral Harris was previously the Pentagon’s liaison to to the State Department under Hillary Clinton as well as John Kerry, which reinforces my impression that Hillary Clinton and her foreign policy advisors have pre-loaded China policy with her supporters, and I expect things to get ugly quickly so that the nasty and awkward business of starting the confrontation can be done under Obama before Clinton enters office.
As I put it elsewhere: Hillary wants to inherit her China crisis from Obama, not foment it herself.
It may give heartache to the “Chinese aggression is the root of all evil” crowd but anybody who doesn’t see a crash US program to escalate what the PRC would like to limit to a contained and manageable local friction in the SCS simply isn’t paying attention.
My apparently distinctly marginal view is that this policy is not going to work very well (though its difficulties will be the source of much occupation and profit for the milsec fixer-uppers and explainers).
As I see the problem, America is not striving for the goal of regional security; it is chasing the chimera of continued American leadership even as the strength of all the Asian powers—Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines as well as the PRC—grow, and US relative strength declines.
In other words, China will spend the next ten years grabbing what it can; and the United States will be struggling to keep what it can’t.
READ THE WHOLE THING.
Below the fold I’m providing the mother of all South China Sea ‘splainers as background. It floats, for the first time, I think, the theory that Chuck Hagel was forced out as Secretary of Defense by the China hawks at the Pentagon.
7500 words give or take. You have been warned. If this piece is reposted by some bot, the two long blog post block quotes will undoubtedly get screwed up to the confusion of all. Refer to the original post at China Matters for proper formatting.