Futile Gestures

President Barack Obama (D) sent the guided missile destroyer USS William P Lawrence to sail to within

12 nautical miles of a land feature in the South China Sea known as Fiery Cross Reef[.]

Fiery Cross Reef is a terraformed “island” that the People’s Republic of China has transformed and on which it’s built a 10,000 foot runway and associated military support buildings; the facility is in the Spratly Islands in the southern part of the South China Sea, a body the PRC has seized, occupied, and been claiming as an inland PRC lake.

The sailing is the

third time in less than a year that the US has conducted so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in an effort to challenge what the US sees as the excessive maritime claims of China and other nations to the islands there.

Obama presents this as a brave and bold challenge to the PRC and a brave and bold assertion of the excessivity of those Chinese claims.  Indeed, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel wondered out loud,

If the world’s most powerful navy cannot sail where international law permits, then what happens to the ships, the navy, of a smaller country?

But stopping at the 12-mile limit is not an assertion of a right to sail where international law permits; on the contrary, it’s an acknowledgment of the PRC’s claims to the island(s), if not a tacit admission of the PRC’s claim to the entire Sea.


The choice of Fiery Cross for the US warship’s operation was likely part of the US signal.  Last month, a high-ranking Chinese general visited Fiery Cross, marking the highest-level Chinese military official to visit any of the islands in the South China Sea in recent years.

The better time to make this sailing—to 12 miles or to my limit—would have been while General Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of the PRC’s Central Military Commission, was visiting the island.

If Obama were truly interested in sailing where international law permits, he’d have our Navy sail as close to each of those islands as navigable waters physically permit, and he’d have our Navy also do it in conjunction with the navies and fishing and other commercial shipping of the other nations surrounding the South China Sea.

Stopping at 12 miles is futile for everyone except the PRC.

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