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Belated challenge to China leaves US a step behind

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The USS Lassen's patrol in disputed waters came months later than originally planned.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- America's decision to send a warship into waters claimed by China has heightened tensions across the Pacific, with neither power willing to budge. But the lateness of President Barack Obama's response to China's island-building has exacerbated the problem by emboldening Beijing and destabilizing the region.

     The USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer equipped with the Aegis missile-defense system, sailed Tuesday within 12 nautical miles of islands built by China in the Spratly archipelago.

An overabundance of caution

The Defense Department had informed China in May that ships and aircraft would be sent within that 12-nautical-mile radius. The freedom-of-navigation operation was meant to demonstrate Washington's refusal to acknowledge Beijing's territorial claim. But Obama put the brakes on these plans on the advice of National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

     Since then, China has started building three airstrips on artificial islands in the area. Each would be around 3km, long enough to permit most military aircraft to land. Harbor facilities have been confirmed as well, clearly intended for military use. A Defense Department report in August estimated that the reclaimed land had ballooned to 2,900 acres by June.

     Obama's fence-sitting let the problem grow. Talking about sending ships while taking no action may have damaged Obama's international credibility, as allies began to call his pivot to Asia an empty promise. The State and Defense departments called for sending ships to the disputed area ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's U.S. visit in late September. Obama refused, betting that he could sway Xi at their meeting. It was only after Xi's flat rejection that Obama finally gave the green light.

     Republican lawmaker John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised the decision Tuesday but criticized it as "long overdue."

     Tuesday was selected as the date for the operation in part to rattle China, which places great importance on face. The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee's Fifth Plenum runs through Thursday. U.S. action in the middle of the political process was expected to draw a confrontational response. It also was intended to ease anger at Obama smoldering within the U.S. military.

     Another aim was to allay concern among U.S. allies, with a three-way summit among Japan, China and South Korea and an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum set for early November.

     U.S. allies have announced support for the move. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga criticized China on Tuesday, saying that unilateral attempts to change the status quo are a shared concern of the international community. A representative of South Korea's Foreign Affairs Ministry refrained from direct comment, likely because Seoul is strengthening its relationship with Beijing, particularly in the economic sphere.

Looking beyond facades

Few expect all-out military conflict between the U.S. and China. With the two powers growing more dependent on each other, an armed conflict would harm not only them but the global economy. China has used that fact to pursue a strategy of brinkmanship, but the country's slowing economy has made it more averse to actual conflict than the U.S.

     This change has not escaped Washington. The U.S. military is discussing dispatching warships to reefs in the Spratly chain near the Philippines and Vietnam, consistent with the government's stance that it is not singling out any country, leaving room to resolve the matter through dialogue.

     The International Monetary Fund's expected decision to add the yuan to the elite currencies underlying its Special Drawing Rights reserve assets as early as next month comes in a similar context. With security-related tensions high, economic policy is being guided in a direction favorable to Beijing in an attempt to avoid worsening China-U.S. relations.

     The situation in the South China Sea is serious in that those on the front lines do not understand the power games being played by Washington and Beijing, heightening the risk of an accidental clash. In military settings, where a split-second decision can mean the difference between life and death, reflexes are highly prized. This bears little relation to the principles of give and take that drive politics.

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