US 'sail through' will not deter China
President Barack Obama's decision to send a U.S. Navy ship through waters claimed by China, around an artificial island in the South China Sea, was presented as a warning that Washington will not allow Beijing to block freedom of navigation. Officials have suggested that the operation in late October might be the first in a series of similar maneuvers with the same objective. But such operations are unlikely to deter China or reassure America's friends in Asia.
The circumstances of the USS Lassen's voyage highlight three points of concern for U.S. allies. The first is that there appears to be significant disagreement between the Pentagon, on the one hand, and the State Department and the White House on the other, about how to respond to China's aggressive acts.
The administration thought long and hard about whether conducting a freedom of navigation operation was prudent, and much of this internal debate was quickly leaked to the press. The fact that the debate persisted as long (and as publicly) as it did suggests this was not an easy decision for Obama.
Second, the prolonged decision-making process shows that from Washington's perspective, the protection of the U.S.-China relationship is paramount. When approaching issues like this, the U.S. must manage a number of competing interests, but it is unwilling to prioritize the interests of individual Asian allies over its own strategic goals.
This is consistent with America's historical conduct in Asia, whether it be refusing to allow South Korea to restart the Korean War in the early 1950s, opening negotiations with Hanoi over the future of Vietnam in the late 1960s, or abrogating its alliance with Taiwan when it officially recognized the Communist administration in Beijing in 1979. The U.S. is not captive to the desires of its allies: If necessary, it will sacrifice their interests to achieve its own.
Third, the New York Times reported that the intention of the Lassen operation was to "reassure allies in Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines that the United States will stand up to China's efforts to unilaterally change facts on the ground."
But in this case, the U.S. spent several months searching for a threat that would leave nothing to chance. The administration wanted a policy solution that would deter China from further island building and ease allies' anxiety, but pose no risks to U.S.-China ties. Sadly, this ideal solution does not exist. The Lassen operation, calibrated to pose minimal risk, is unlikely to dissuade China from continuing its construction projects in disputed waters.
There is no doubt that many in Washington are extremely concerned about how U.S. inaction might rattle allies' confidence. But does anyone think that after this operation, Tokyo will suddenly develop absolute faith in America's willingness to help it defend the Senkaku Islands -- which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands -- from a Chinese attack?
While American decision-makers do fret over how their actions will be perceived, fearing that allies will regard them as irresolute or disloyal, friendly states focus on what American actions reveal about U.S. interests. Rather than ideas of "loyalty" or "resolve," allies care about whether America's interests converge with their own. Shared interests make for strong alliances and reliable allies.
The way the Lassen operation played out -- the delay of several months; the deferral until after Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Washington in September; the warning provided through the media; Defense Secretary Ash Carter's reluctance to confirm that the operation had occurred; and the internal arguments between the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House -- makes allies wonder whether, in a crisis, the U.S. will regard its China ties as more important than assisting its friends.
The Philippines has already experienced this. In 2012, when China seized the Scarborough Shoal -- a South China Sea feature claimed by both Beijing and Manila -- the U.S. was not willing to endanger its relationship with China by responding forcefully.
These circumstances are not novel. In May 1950, a U.S. diplomat in Tokyo cabled the State Department, using language that would be equally appropriate today: "The Japanese people are desperately looking for firm ground ... . They were skeptical on just what and when and where the United States would stand firm."
At the time, America's withdrawal from South Korea after World War II (and a decision to exclude it from a publicly announced "defensive line" in Asia) had sparked fear among Japanese leaders, who interpreted Washington's position as a signal that the U.S. might be equally unwilling to help defend Japan. A month later, Washington's decision to defend South Korea against invasion by Soviet-backed North Korean forces, despite having decided earlier not to do so, reassured Tokyo and paved the way for the U.S.-Japan alliance.
It is events such as these -- inflection points that force the U.S. to clarify its interests and defend them at significant cost or risk -- that demonstrate convergent goals and reassure partners. But the recent freedom of navigation operation, designed and timed to minimize risk to the U.S.-China relationship, demonstrates how America's interests might diverge from those of some Asian allies.
Until the U.S. clearly shows that it has a coherent, sensible and sustainable Asia policy, its friends in the region will continue to doubt its reliability as an ally.
Iain Henry is a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.