The USS Lassen, left, in an exercise in 2010.

Photographer: John J. Mike/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Battle Over China's Artificial Islands Has Just Begun

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
Read More.
( Updated
)
a | A

After months of internal debate, the White House permitted the Defense Department to sail one ship near a reef in the South China Sea that China claims. The Chinese reaction shows Beijing has no intention of backing down. Now the Obama administration is debating what to do next.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter confirmed on Tuesday that the Lassen, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer, traveled Monday within 12 miles of the Subi Reef, which was underwater until the Chinese government built it into an artificial island. Under questioning from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter said the U.S. has the right to operate near the Chinese structures. He expressed support for doing such a “freedom of navigation operation” again.

“What you read in the newspaper is accurate, but I don’t want to say when, whether or how we operate anywhere in the world,” he said. “These are operations that we should be conducting normally.”

Carter has publicly asserted U.S. access to these waters since his speech in May at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Admiral Harry Harris, the head of Pacific Command, has advocated that right as well, within the administration. But other senior officials pushed to delay the sail-by, fearing it would provoke Beijing and hurt other areas of cooperation, U.S. officials told me.

QuickTake Territorial Disputes

The White House decision to move forward came after several meetings at the National Security Council Principal Committee level, where the timing was a sticking point. White House officials wanted to wait until after President Obama’s summit last month with Chinese President Xi Jinping, during which Xi said publicly that China did not intend to militarize the artificial islands. Secretary of State John Kerry argued for delaying the operation until after the Paris Climate Change conference, U.S. officials said. It ends in December.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted swiftly Tuesday, calling the U.S. move a “deliberate provocation” and summoning the U.S. ambassador to China, Max Baucus, to protest the action. The foreign ministry spokesperson said China might conclude it had to "increase and strengthen the building up of our relevant abilities." The Chinese Defense Ministry said the ship’s activity was a “coercive action that seeks to militarize the South China Sea region." 

U.S. officials told me Tuesday that the Chinese reaction was as expected and that the Obama administration had publicly signaled for months that the freedom of navigation operation would take place. There is no expectation that one ship’s action will deter the Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Instead there is a new internal debate over what the U.S. should do next and when.

Officials said Carter had told Pacific Command to come up with a detailed plan for conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea that could include deploying more naval forces to the western Pacific to routinely conduct these exercises out of Clark Air Base in the Philippines with support from P8 surveillance aircraft. The official in charge of developing the plan is Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, the head of Pacific Command operations.

Carter and the top brass support that strategy, U.S. officials briefed by Carter's staff said, but others in the Pentagon -- , including Admiral John Richardson, the new chief of Naval Operations -- favor less confrontation and more engagement with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy. Pacific Command will submit its proposal to an interagency process. It could be debated for months before the president makes another decision.

Some Republican lawmakers expressed support for the freedom of navigation patrol -- and said the Obama administration must do more to stand up to Chinese aggression.

“This cannot be a one-off occurrence," said Senator Cory Gardner, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations East Asia Subcommittee. "This must continue. It must be regular.”

Representative Randy Forbes of Virginia, who has urged the administration to travel within 12 miles of China’s artificial islands, told me that the White House is still coming up short in its promise to shift U.S. focus to East Asia. He said China's claims in the South China Sea show that need.

“Instead of a strategy to prevent these actions, they are in a position where they react,” Forbes said of the Obama administration. “Now we have to just wait and see what the next steps are.”

Asia experts who are sympathetic to this view point out that the administration has responded to provocations from China with finite reactions, lacking follow-up. For example, when China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone last year in the East China Sea, the U.S. made a show of flying B52 bombers through it one time. The U.S. has not pushed back since then, and America’s regional partners have largely acquiesced to Chinese claims to the zone.

“If the U.S. just sends in one destroyer, it’s flamboyant and it doesn’t do anything to say the nature of the balance is shifting back in our direction,” said Michael Auslin, an Asia scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The Americans have been forced into a reactive stance. And it took them a year to figure out what to do in the first place.”

If the buildup in the South China Sea continues, in a few years China will have cemented its control over the territory, he said. In addition to regular freedom of navigation operations, Auslin thinks the U.S. should encourage other regional allies to join the U.S. in physically challenging Chinese maritime claims.

Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia Pacific Security Program and the Center for a New American Security, said that the administration does have a multi-pronged approach to dealing with China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. Part of it is to build partnerships with Southeast Asian allies and push for a code of conduct that China will sign to govern all nations’ actions there.

But the Obama administration needs to do more to prevent China from changing the power dynamics in the South China Sea, he said.

“Over all, the White House wants to secure its legacy of managing a stable U.S.-China relationship despite differences. But even within that approach, we’re going to have to flex some muscle,” said Cronin. “These operations are not fixing the problem. These operations are to demonstrate our interests that we are working toward.”

Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Asia subcommittee, told me that the administration is right to weigh the risks of escalation with China while reinforcing American commitments and policies. “What the U.S. is doing is calculated,” he said. "We don’t want to cause unintended consequences."

U.S. officials and outside experts agree that China’s militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea is a problem that is not going away and will require a robust U.S. strategy for the foreseeable future. There is also a consensus that although changing China’s behavior is difficult, the U.S. and its allies still need to impede the Chinese as they try to consolidate control of disputed territory.

However, there is no consensus in Washington about how to do that. The U.S. government has a range of tools -- diplomatic, economic and military -- to push back against the Chinese strategy. The question is whether the U.S. will use those tools effectively before China’s control of the South China Sea becomes a fait accompli.

(Corrects location of base for Pacific operations in eighth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net