DAVID IGNATIUS: Still searching for a strategy in Syria

DAVID IGNATIUS

The U.S. appears to be moving toward a military test of China’s claims of sovereignty in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and officials here seem pleased that President Obama is prepared to put more muscle into his famous “pivot” to Asia.

The U.S. has been briefing Asian allies about its new readiness to assert “freedom of navigation” by sending ships within the 12-mile limits that China has placed around its newly reclaimed “islands.” Adm. John Richardson, the new chief of naval operations, said in Tokyo a week ago that U.S. warships will be “just steaming in international waters,” and that this shouldn’t be seen by Beijing as a “provocation.”

After ducking a confrontation with China over the disputed islands since 2012, the administration has decided to take a tougher stance. “The United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows,” Obama said at a news conference with President Xi Jinping during the Chinese leader’s visit to Washington last month. Xi, for his part, insisted that China won’t militarize the islands.

What will the Chinese do as U.S. warships sail past the maritime limits Beijing claims? Its foreign ministry warned that “there is no way for us to condone infringement of China’s territorial sea.” But officials here expect that China will do no more than shadow U.S. vessels, and perhaps attempt to block their passage, rather than opening fire.

The maritime game of chicken that’s looming could easily escalate out of control. So the U.S. and China would be wise to agree on clearer rules for dealing with incidents at sea, before vessels actually come in contact. Superpowers shouldn’t make “invidious premature choices,” warns Bilahari Kausikan, a Singapore ambassador at large and former top official of the foreign ministry.

Southeast Asian leaders, who have been worried that Obama was too passive about China’s island grab, appear relieved.

“America has been distracted,” says a former top Singapore official. “There’s been a lack of focus on Asia.”

The Chinese concluded several years ago that the Obama administration “would talk but do nothing” about the disputed islands, said a senior Singapore official.

The debate here about checking Chinese power in Asia has a different (and more positive) tone than the relentless Washington focus on Russia and the Middle East. Officials here see the Middle East as an unfortunate diversion from the more important challenge of a rising China. Obama would probably say the same thing.

Kausikan says he’s not worried about a U.S. retreat from the Middle East.

Talking with Southeast Asian officials is the foreign policy equivalent of changing the channel.

The Middle East is a continuing demonstration of the limits of U.S. military power, and antipathy toward its use. But in the Pacific region, countries invite that same U.S. power to check China’s bid for regional dominance. The common theme, perhaps, is that nations want America to fight their wars, until they go bad.

“We speak of the U.S. as a ‘benign hegemon,” says Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s former ambassador to Washington. Have you ever heard that phrase applied to America’s role in the Middle East?

David Ignatius’ email address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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