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Chinese Power Play

Japan’s leaders have been sufficiently alarmed by China’s increasing assertiveness in the region to act.  They have good cause.  China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, laid down by the Soviet navy and purchased from Ukraine, was commissioned a little over a year ago.  Beijing plans to build its own carriers in the future.  The maiden flight of China’s first stealth drone, called Sharp Sword, took place on November 21. The most current U.S. Defense Department report on Chinese military developments is abundant with reports on new classes of  Chinese submarines, modernized tactical fighters, surface ships, and missiles.  Tokyo is increasing its military expenditures, enlarging its submarine fleet, and this past summer launched its largest warship since World War II, the 19,500 ton helicopter carrier Izumo. The West Pacific arms buildup does not stop in East Asia.  Australia is expanding its conventional submarine force as domestic analysts argue about whether the staying power of nuclear-powered submarines makes more sense. Southeast Asian states are adding to or in some cases creating amphibious capability.

Not a small part of the Asian arms race rests on America’s allies’ judgment about the Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia.  In speech, the pivot is encouraging.  The hitch is the large cuts in the U.S. defense budget that will reduce the size, power, reach, and presence of U.S. forces.

But at least for now, the Obama administration has acted wisely in the face of China’s East China Sea announcement.  B-52s launched from Guam on Monday the 25th and, without informing Chinese authorities, entered what China just days before claimed as its Air Defense Identification Zone.  China did nothing.  Freedom of navigation, both at sea and in the air above, is established by asserting the right of innocent passage.  When Muammar Qaddafi declared his “Line of Death” marking off as Libyan territory the international waters of the Gulf of Sidra, American naval vessels challenged him and Libya initiated military force to uphold its claim.  They were unsuccessful.  Use—in the Libyan case, the U.S.’s forcible use—prevented abuse.  Libya tried again in 1989 and lost again.  The wrongful claim was not renewed.

China made no such mistake during Monday’s B-52 foray.  But it will take more than a single flight of B-52s to prevent China from making good on its claims over international airspace.  The Obama administration deserves credit for its swift action on Monday.  It will earn greater respect from China as well as from our Asian and Pacific allies if the U.S. continues to assert its traditional insistence on freedom of navigation in the world’s commons.