The brinkmanship in the South China Sea

About three years ago, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili acted rashly and triggered a war with Russia. But Saakashvili didn’t think he was rash — the United States, he was sure, had his back. He was wrong — the U.S. had supported Georgia as a strategic bulwark for a big oil pipeline, but that differed from ...

Marco Longari  AFP/Getty Images
Marco Longari AFP/Getty Images
Marco Longari AFP/Getty Images

About three years ago, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili acted rashly and triggered a war with Russia. But Saakashvili didn't think he was rash -- the United States, he was sure, had his back. He was wrong -- the U.S. had supported Georgia as a strategic bulwark for a big oil pipeline, but that differed from going to battle with a nuclear-armed former superpower. As a result, Russia seized two regions comprising a fifth of Georgian territory, and recognized them as private nations. Since then, Saakashvili has labored with mixed results to rebuild his economy, Thomas De Waal of the Carnegie Endowment writes in a comprehensive look at Saakashvili's Georgia.

Today, Vietnam is conducting live-fire drills in the South China Sea in a show that it won't be intimidated in a push-and-shove dispute with China over waters suspected of containing significant oil reserves. Over the weekend, Hanoi urged its former enemy -- the United States -- to help pull the row back from the flashpoint, reports the Financial Times' Ben Bland. In this case, the U.S. will oblige -- to a degree.

Last Friday, the U.S. State Department said it is "troubled" by the rise in tensions. Though for the last year the U.S. has met a request by southeast Asian nations to resist its instincts to defend them, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last summer suggested the nation was prepared to do, one can imagine a sturdy U.S. response in the Vietnam situation. Not to say that President Barack Obama would dispatch an aircraft carrier square into the disputed zone -- the U.S. will stay well back from rattling its war sword. But there could be stern new warnings from Clinton among other steps, under the presumption that Beijing will temper its behavior accordingly.

About three years ago, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili acted rashly and triggered a war with Russia. But Saakashvili didn’t think he was rash — the United States, he was sure, had his back. He was wrong — the U.S. had supported Georgia as a strategic bulwark for a big oil pipeline, but that differed from going to battle with a nuclear-armed former superpower. As a result, Russia seized two regions comprising a fifth of Georgian territory, and recognized them as private nations. Since then, Saakashvili has labored with mixed results to rebuild his economy, Thomas De Waal of the Carnegie Endowment writes in a comprehensive look at Saakashvili’s Georgia.

Today, Vietnam is conducting live-fire drills in the South China Sea in a show that it won’t be intimidated in a push-and-shove dispute with China over waters suspected of containing significant oil reserves. Over the weekend, Hanoi urged its former enemy — the United States — to help pull the row back from the flashpoint, reports the Financial Times’ Ben Bland. In this case, the U.S. will oblige — to a degree.

Last Friday, the U.S. State Department said it is "troubled" by the rise in tensions. Though for the last year the U.S. has met a request by southeast Asian nations to resist its instincts to defend them, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last summer suggested the nation was prepared to do, one can imagine a sturdy U.S. response in the Vietnam situation. Not to say that President Barack Obama would dispatch an aircraft carrier square into the disputed zone — the U.S. will stay well back from rattling its war sword. But there could be stern new warnings from Clinton among other steps, under the presumption that Beijing will temper its behavior accordingly.

Ultimately both regions are vulnerable — the Caucasus to Moscow, and the southeast Asian nations of the South China Sea to Beijing — and must more or less fend for themselves. That is just one factor separating the 1990s from now. The South China Sea events demonstrate that, in a fight, China cannot rely on perceptions of its ostensible place in the new age to smooth its way out of potential confrontation. In the Caucasus, the U.S. is pragmatically prepared for all the world to observe its limits. Not so much in the South China Sea, where far more is at stake. Yet at some point, China will do more than just hang back.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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