Things are about to get interesting in the South China Sea:
The United States is preparing to maneuver naval warships and aircraft close to China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, in what would be the Obama Administration’s toughest response yet to Beijing. Reportedly, the White House is readying plans to send warships within twelve nautical miles of several of the islands—a move that China claims would be an illegal violation of its sovereignty. Citing a U.N. treaty, the United States argues that man-made outposts cannot be construed as legitimate territory.
China wants to convert international waters into territorial waters, which would put China in control of valuable sea lanes, keep American military ships and aircraft out of those waters, and push out rival claimants to islands in the area.
So we will carry out Freedom of Navigation missions close to the artificial islands to show that we do not go along with China's unsupported claims of sovereignty.
Which is dangerous if China resists, as Khadaffi did a number of times in the 1980s when we crossed his so-called "line of death" in the Gulf of Sidra on similar missions.
We should be prepared to disable Chinese civilian vessels ordered by the Chinese government to ram or otherwise interfere with our missions. I doubt China would escalate to Coast Guard or even navy vessels, but you never know.
But if we don't do this, China gets their way and friends and allies will start moving away from us and toward China to accommodate the shift in power.
Remember, our basic objective isn't to deny China ownership of any particular island. We just insist that the issue of ownership be settled by negotiations rather than force (which in practice means we don't want China to attack other countries); and we don't want anybody who owns those islands to assert control of waters around those islands that exceed what international law allows--which keeps the South China Sea international waters.
UPDATE: This comment by Admiral Scott Swift in defense of freedom of navigation missions is relevant:
"It's my sense that some nations view freedom of the seas as up for grabs, as something that can be taken down and redefined by domestic law or by reinterpreting international law," Swift told a maritime conference in Sydney.
"Some nations continue to impose superfluous warnings and restrictions on freedom of the seas in their exclusive economic zones and claim territorial water rights that are inconsistent with (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). This trend is particularly egregious in contested waters."
We'll see of our pivots away from Europe and the Middle East--and the resulting disorder as we tried to disengage--in order to pivot to the Pacific inspire China to back down or resist us.
Why yes, my pucker factor is a bit higher today, now that you ask.
UPDATE: There is a major failure to communicate:
Secretary Carter proclaimed that the U.S. “would fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows” and noted that “turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.” In response, on August 11, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua brazenly asserted that “freedom of navigation does not mean to allow other countries to intrude into the airspace of the sea which is sovereign… no freedom of navigation for warships and airplanes.”
These are fundamentally different views and only one can prevail.
The author provides a useful description of the various land features and how they affect territorial water, airspace, and EEZs.
UPDATE: China is not backing down:
China said on Friday it would not stand for violations of its territorial waters in the name of freedom of navigation, as the United States considers sailing warships close to China's artificial islands in the South China Sea.
No American ship sent to challenge the illegal 12-mile limits around artificial islands should go alone. It should have plenty of backup nearby.
And we should have means short of force to keep Chinese non-military vessels away from our ship carrying out the challenge.
Heck, I'd put a sizable Marine contingent on whatever ship we send in case the Chinese try to board the vessel after disabling it by ramming or fouling the propellers.
UPDATE: Propaganda against "foreign devils" has dulled the senses of Chinese who alarmingly continue to view Communist Party corruption as more immediate than those foreign threats:
So far that tipping point [of officials realizing that their personal safety requires them to stop stealing] has not been reached and popular anger continues to grow. The government had hoped that cultivating nationalism and creating “foreign threats” (usually the United States and Japan) would distract people. [It] does, but not often enough to slow the growth of corruption related unrest. Corruption is an everyday reality while foreign threats are far away and, for most Chinese, more a form of entertainment than an immediate threat.
Will the Chinese react to this by stopping corruption or by making the foreign threat seem a little more real by engineering a "safe" incident with one of the foreign devils?