Pushing Back Against a Chinese Lake in the South China Sea

The United States, Japan, and ASEAN are beefing up their responses to Beijing's aggressive actions in one of the world's key waterways.


China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea are prompting a soul-searching query from Hanoi to Washington: At what point does a sliced-up salami cease being a salami at all?

In a short space of time, China’s unilateral and incremental efforts to carve out a greater presence in the South China Sea — by, for example, turning empty coral atolls into artificial airstrips — have prompted concern that Beijing is not-so-stealthily creating a new strategic reality in one of the world’s most important and potentially volatile flash points. That so-called “salami-slicing” strategy, in which countries undertake a series of seemingly inconsequential steps that add up to a fundamental change, is pushing many Southeast Asian countries closer together and is breathing fresh life into the decades-old U.S.-Japan defense alliance, all with an eye on a common, if often unnamed, adversary.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe celebrated deeper defense ties between the two allies, meant in part to respond to a shifting security environment in the Asia-Pacific region. “For the first time in nearly two decades, we’ve updated the guidelines for our defense cooperation,” Obama said at a joint news conference in Washington.

“We share a concern about China’s land reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea, and the United States and Japan are united in our commitment to freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, without coercion,” Obama said

On the other side of the world, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional grouping, went further than it ever had before in condemning China’s efforts to muscle aside neighbors with an aggressive program of island building in the South China Sea. Prompted especially by Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the 26th ASEAN summit concluded with a statement Tuesday that implicitly called out Beijing for destabilizing the region.

“We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea,” ASEAN countries said in their joint statement.

And even though internal divisions inside ASEAN precluded condemning China by name, Beijing got the message — and shot back with vitriol.

China is “gravely concerned” by the statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing Tuesday. “Relevant construction [on the reefs] is lawful, justified and reasonable and thus beyond reproach. The Chinese side opposes a few countries’ taking hostage the entire ASEAN and China-ASEAN relations for their own selfish gains and undermining the friendly cooperation between China and ASEAN,” he continued.

The back-and-forth came just a day after the United States and Japan cemented a more muscular defensive partnership, with new guidelines that bolster the two countries’ militaries’ ability to plan and operate together. Japan has its own territorial disputes with China in the East China Sea — and Obama reiterated U.S. defense commitments to Japan in the event of a clash there — but the revised guidelines go further. They open the door for Tokyo to get involved in armed showdowns even when Japan itself is not attacked, including taking a greater role in possible South China Sea conflicts.

Taken together with other beefed-up U.S. defense commitments, including expanded basing rights in the Philippines, as well as closer defense ties between Asian countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, the new guidelines point toward a growing recognition in the region and in Washington that China’s efforts to change the facts on the ground represent a real threat. In the past month, a bevy of analysts have called for a more vigorous U.S. response to Chinese actions that threaten regional stability.

“Together, our forces will be more flexible and better prepared to cooperate on a range of challenges, from maritime security to disaster response,” Obama said about the enhanced security relationship, adding that “Japan will take on greater roles and responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.” U.S. Marines, Obama added, will relocate from Okinawa to Guam to help “realign U.S. forces across the region.”

Seeking to parry criticism that closer defense ties could suck Japan into U.S. wars, Abe stressed the role that the pact has played in underpinning decades of peace and prosperity in Asia. And in the context of rising tensions in the South and East China seas, Abe said, the revised defense pact will help enhance deterrence and make for a more efficient and functional alliance.

Importantly, the traditional alliance partners are no longer apparently alone. The fact that ASEAN’s 10 oft-divided countries managed to condemn, albeit obliquely, China’s behavior simply underscores how the region is waking up, said Holly Morrow, an expert at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“What we are witnessing is China reaping the fruits of its strategy in the region: a reinvigorated U.S.-Japan alliance, a completely transformed U.S.-Vietnam relationship, a closer U.S.-Philippine alliance than has been seen in many years, and generally a Southeast Asian view of China’s rise that is much more negative than it was even five or 10 years ago,” she said.

China’s far-reaching claims to sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, a crowded waterway filled with potential energy riches through which passes about $5 trillion in trade every year, are hardly new. The “nine-dashed line” that China says represents its blue territory on the map dates from just after World War II, and China has had low-level disputes with neighbors over maritime claims for more than a decade.

But in the past six months, its ambitious program of building artificial islands potentially gives Beijing the ability to project military power in the region in a way that it could not before. One expert on China defense issues, Andrew Erickson, noted recently that by building an airstrip on the Fiery Cross Reef, located hundreds of miles from China but close to the Philippines, Beijing could install air-defense zones in the heart of the South China Sea.

In the great game of weiqi that China appears to be playing in Asian geopolitics, steps such as reef reclamation and aggressive pushback at even mild condemnations by neighboring countries amount to a slate of strategically placed stones that could tilt the balance ever more in Beijing’s direction, experts say. That could be one reason that Washington appears to be putting more vigor behind the “rebalancing” to Asia, especially at the Defense Department, where the top leadership including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Deputy Secretary Robert Work, are well versed in Asian security issues.

The big question, of course, is what the United States can realistically do to respond to China’s actions. The two countries need to cooperate on a whole range of issues, from managing the global economy to dealing with nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, as well tackling climate change, cybersecurity, and other transnational affairs. At the same time, and unlike Vietnam or the Philippines, Washington’s attention is divided by multiple and escalating crises in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine. In that vein, as Foreign Policy columnist Stephen M. Walt recently noted, saber rattling over rocks doesn’t make much apparent sense.

But at some point, many experts now say, Beijing’s incrementalist approach to changing the status quo in the Western Pacific will require a full-throated response from Washington. If not, the Asian salami that the United States has spent 70 years defending might just gradually disappear from the plate.

Photo credit: CHINAFOTOPRESS/Getty

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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