Evan Graham reports for the Lowy Institute on the Administration’s predicament in the SCS:
The US finds itself in an invidious double bind on freedom of navigation (FON) in the South China Sea. Having ramped up expectations in recent months that the US Navy is about to conduct a freedom of navigation operation in the Spratly Islands, it is damned if it doesn’t. This first snare is a product of White House vacillation. If the operation goes ahead, however, Washington risks sailing into another trap by handing Beijing an excuse to militarise its artificial islands.
After months of talking the talk on freedom of navigation but apparent paralysis on walking the walk, if the US does not proceed with some physical demonstration its diminished stock of credibility on the South China Sea may be irreparably damaged. Failure to act now will be viewed as another Obama foreign policy “red-line” rowed back from, further undercutting the US rebalance to Asia.
The Obama Administration does face big troubles with rising China, some (most?) of its own making — but “handing Beijing an excuse to militarise its artificial islands” isn’t one of them.
That’s what China built the islands for, and that’s what they will do with them, regardless of any excuses we may or may not hand Beijing.
So I say, go on and sail into that “trap.” First, it will demonstrate we still mean as much business as China does. Second, we can and should remind Beijing that island are easier to hit than aircraft carriers are.