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“The provincial government of Hainan Island in south China, which Beijing gives “jurisdiction” over the South China Sea, has announced that starting in January naval patrols have the right to intercept and board ships that “trespass” the Sea’s waters, according to Chinese state media. They will also have the authority to force intercepted ships to change course. The South China Sea is not just disputed territory between China and five other claimant nations, but also contains some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Coming just four days after China showed the world its first launch and recovery of a fighter jet from its sole aircraft carrier, and roughly four months after Beijing upgraded a small naval outpost to become a full-fledged military garrison covering the South China Sea, this news seems both logical and stunningly reckless. Already, China’s expansive claims to the island territories and waters of the South China Sea have put it at odds with its neighbors and the United States over the past several years. Yet freedom of navigation has always been seen as the one red line with China’s growing military strength. Beijing can threaten Taiwan, oppress Tibet, tussle with Asian neighbors over contested island territory, and build stealth fighters and carrier-killer missiles, but interfering with the world’s trade and free navigation was assumed to be the one (plausible) thing that would result in intervention by the U.S. Navy to uphold international law.
If Beijing is confident enough that the rest of the world won’t stand up to its step by-step assertion of power in Asia, then that belief may well be put to the test. Washington pundits have latched on to the idea of “security in the global commons” for several years now, mainly in response to fears that China was becoming strong enough to shift the balance of power in Asia’s waters in its favor. While issues like Tibet were largely considered internal to China, the “commons” were used as shorthand for global interests, like freedom on the high seas, that Beijing understood could not be surrendered by the international community.
More worryingly, this news is also a sign of how things might develop under new leader Xi Jinping, who took power as Communist Party chief just this month. Many have wondered how close Xi is to the People’s Liberation Army, or whether the embarrassing scandal involving fallen Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai from this spring would force Xi to show his control early, perhaps by stirring up tension with Japan. Yet a challenge to the bedrock of maritime law that could result in a conflict at sea seems too far even for China’s usually cautious leadership. The real question, then, is whether Beijing truly intends to cross the line because it feels strong enough to get away with it, or if this is just more bluster from a regime that continually tests the resolve of nations in Asia.
What these new rules really mean is still vague, and Beijing will probably have to clarify more than it did yesterday, by stating that there was no problem “at present” with other nations freely transiting the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Washington needs to make clear in the strongest possible terms that freedom of navigation won’t be interfered with under any circumstances, and that the U.S. Navy will forcibly prevent any ship from being boarded or turned around by Chinese vessels.
If Washington fails to come up with a clear policy and operational plan, and responds sluggishly if China interferes with innocent shipping, then it will lose more credibility in an Asia that is already questioning its staying power, and will undermine President Obama’s promise to “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific.
Beijing can threaten Taiwan, oppress Tibet, tussle with Asian neighbors over contested island territory, and build stealth fighters and carrier-killer missiles, but interfering with the world’s trade and free navigation was assumed to be the one (plausible) thing that would result in intervention by the U.S. Navy to uphold international law.
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