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Our National Interest and the South China Sea

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Unread 09.06.19, 05:29 PM
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Our National Interest and the South China Sea

On 09.06.19 02:01 PM posted by Walter Lohman

It’s difficult to explain how a country goes aboutdefining its national interests.

Sure, we know the policy processes. We know theconsiderations. Interests in borders, war, and peace are easy to understand. Butwhy are other, more abstract interests, such as American concern for thefreedom of navigation in a far-flung place like the South China Sea, soenduring?

I could make a wonky argument around the free flow of tradeand the global commons, the need to maintain access for warships required in thedefense of American allies, and regional stability.

But the more compelling answer may be: “It just is.”

What’s more, it’s not going to change. That’s the lessonto take from the Trump administration’s recent moves in the South China Sea.

The American interest in the freedom of the seas precededPresident Donald Trump by more than 200 years and will continue throughout his timein office, and that of his successor, whatever happens in the broader U.S.-Chinarelationship.

It is a timely reminder, because of late, the issue hasbecome more prominent.

The Chinese seem to have doubled down on its maritime claims vis-a-vis America’s allies in the Philippines, no doubt because Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has proven such an easy mark.

Chinese maritime militias have swarmed fishing vesselsaround islands held and governed by the Philippines, made multiple unlawfultransits through Philippine waters, and deployed survey ships in thePhilippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Things are also simmering between China and Vietnam. TheChinese coast guard is harassing non-Chinese drilling activity off the coast ofVietnam. It has also begun its own, unauthorized oil and gas survey, similar toone in 2014, when such activity provoked a serious crisis between the twocountries.

The Vietnamese have been less obsequious than Duterte,who this week staged an exchange of views on the issue with Chinese CommunistParty chief Xi Jinping in Beijing. The Vietnamese, by contrast, have loudly condemnedthe activity and explicitly sought the support of the international community.

In fairness to the Filipinos, the Vietnamese themselveshave a communist government whose dealings with China are far from transparent.It is impossible to know what is happening behind the scenes between Hanoi andBeijing.

Nevertheless, the international support Vietnam requestedhas been forthcoming. The U.S. issued a couple of very strong statements. TheAustralians have as well. Even the Europeans—the U.K., Germany and France—agreedto a joint statement, albeit a gentle one.

As for the operational side of an internationalresponse, the U.K. and especially France have been helpful. The real push,however, has long come from the U.S., and since coming to office, the Trumpadministration has intensified it.

The U.S. has carried out at least 15 China-related freedomof navigation exercises in the South China Sea since 2017—the most recent justlast weekend.

Now, the almost-Pavlovian response from American Asiawatchers is that those exercises “are not a strategy.”

Critics of the previous administration made similar complaints about President Barack Obama’s (far fewer) exercises. Sure, they’re right, but they have lost sight of the broader context.

There are a heck of a lot of other related things goingon, too. The Trump administration is responding vigorously to Chinese designsacross American interests, from Taiwan to cybersecurity. It’s much more activeon human rights than generally credited with. And on trade, you may disagreewith his tactics—and I most certainly do—but you can’t say Trump is not doinganything.

Most importantly, the administration is in the midst ofa multiyear effort to rebuild the American military and expand its presence inthe Western Pacific. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper testified to this anewlast week at the U.S. Naval War College, where he also repeated the bipartisanAmerican mantra that the U.S. will “fly, sail, and operate whereverinternational rules allow.”

Besides, no administration develops and implements astrategy as meticulously as critics dream.

We have a National Security Strategy, a National DefenseStrategy, and a Defense Department Indo-Pacific Strategy. That’s all to thegood. They make clear to the world where our priorities lie. They help properlydistribute resources. But documents like these do not exactly lie dog-eared andworn on the desks of any administration’s practitioners.

American foreign policy is about promoting andprotecting American interests. Explaining why, since the War of 1812, freedomof the seas has ranked so prominently among them is complicated and notnecessarily convincing.

The best guide to understanding U.S. interests is itstrack record. Trump no less—and perhaps more—than his predecessors hasprioritized free navigation in the South China Sea.

If you’re sitting in Beijing or Manila or Hanoi—or London, Paris, or Berlin for that matter—you should consider American vigor in its defense a permanent part of the operating environment.

The post Our National Interest and the South China Sea appeared first on The Daily Signal.

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