Standoff.

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Kerry's Soft Words Blunt U.S. Hard Power in South China Sea

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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There are times when I want President Barack Obama to invent a global crisis for John Kerry to solve, just to keep his secretary of state from making the real ones worse. Consider what happened at New Delhi this week, where Kerry offered a remarkable comment about the current tensions in the South China Sea. He said there was no "military solution."

Kerry was asked about China's public indifference to a decision in July from an international tribunal at the Hague that flatly rejected China's claims to the territorial waters of the Philippines in the South China Sea.

"We want to support a code of conduct for the management of the South China Sea," Kerry said. "We support diplomacy in an effort to try to resolve this with an understanding that there really is no, quote, 'military solution.' "  

He added the U.S. was not interested in "fanning the flames of conflict but rather trying to encourage the parties to resolve their disputes and claims through the legal process and through diplomacy."

There are two things that are remarkable about Kerry's thoughts on this matter. To start, the U.S. position has been that the ruling of the Hague tribunal was not negotiable. While Washington does not officially take sides in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it supports the rule of law and opposes China's efforts to assert sovereignty over these waters unilaterally. So what does it mean that Kerry is calling on both parties to take steps to resolve the issue as if this was the Arab-Israeli peace process? The only party "fanning the flames of conflict" in the South China Sea has been China.

More remarkable, though, is Kerry's utterance about military solutions. To start, the Chinese clearly believe there is a military solution to their problems in the South China Sea. That's why they keep militarizing the artificial islands they have been dredging up there.

More important, the Obama administration's primary policy for responding to all of this has been a military solution, so to speak. It has sent elements of the Seventh Fleet on "freedom of navigation" missions into disputed areas. And while these missions have not overtly challenged the waters around China's artificial islands, the military has been the driver of the U.S. policy response.

The pace and tenor of U.S. joint military exercises with East Asian allies has been a response to China's claims in the South China Sea as well. To say nothing of new rounds of U.S. arms sales to countries threatened by China's activities as well. Most of the administration's vaunted "pivot to Asia" has been an attempt to reposition military assets.

None of this precludes U.S. diplomacy with China, but Kerry's efforts at conflict resolution undermine such diplomacy at a time when Chinese aggression has been censured by an international tribunal.

Daniel Blumenthal, the director of Asia Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told me Thursday: "Almost any response we have against China's aggression in the South China Sea is going to have a military component."

He clarified that this doesn't mean the U.S. should start a war with China, but he said almost every expert outside and inside the government has identified military steps the U.S. could take to deter China. These include things like U.S. Navy convoys to accompany Filipino fishermen into waters claimed by China, or sailing more aggressive missions into the waters surrounding China's artificial islands.

All of this is particularly important now in the run-up to this weekend's G-20 conference at Hangzhou. In recent months, China has signaled that it plans to begin dredging new artificial islands at Scarborough Shoal, which it continues to block from Filipino fishermen despite the international tribunal ruling. This threat is serious enough that Obama himself warned China's premier, Xi Jinping, to back away from the shoals in March, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.

Senior Japanese officials whom I met with in Tokyo last week told me that if China were to build and militarize islands in the shoals, it would have effective military control of the entire South China Sea, and could position aircraft and ships dangerously close to U.S. Naval assets in the Philippines. A retired senior Japanese military officer suggested the U.S. should consider a blockade of the shoals to prevent the Chinese from achieving their plan. (Another military solution, I know.)

In this respect, Kerry has sent a dangerous signal to China and America's East Asian allies. Andrew Shearer, senior adviser on Asia Pacific security with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former national security adviser to two Australian prime ministers, told me Kerry's job is to reassure our allies. He said the secretary's statement in New Delhi "risks reducing deterrence."

None of this should be surprising. Kerry's worldview is shaped by his experience in the Vietnam War, which as a young veteran he campaigned against. Kerry told Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon that he believes "war is the failure of diplomacy." This is, after all, the same secretary of state who brought James Taylor to Paris following the Charlie Hebdo massacre to play, "You've Got a Friend."

But America's friends need to know their most important ally is willing to stand up to China in the South China Sea. This should start with an acknowledgment that the U.S. has many military solutions to the crisis created there by China's military.      

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:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net