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Anxious Hours in Pivotland: Where's My Sailthrough?!!
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This was an anxious week in Pivotland© , the Beltway district in which milsec types congregate to formulate, promote, and profit from the forward strategy toward the PRC.

President Obama has been laggard in executing a cherished pivot initiative, the defiant US Navy sailthrough within 12 miles of the PRC’s faux-island holdings in the South China Sea.

Bonnie Glaser, the Princess of the Pivot at CSIS, all-capped her frustration in a tweet on October 16:

US-China confrontation looms in troubled waters of South China Sea. Stop talking and DO THE FONOP ALREADY!

“FONOP” as in “Freedom of Navigation Op.” I might point out that a naval sailthrough within a country’s claimed 12-mile territorial limit is not automatically a piece of sovereignty-repudiating outrance. Naval vessels are free to sail within other countries’ 12 mile limit in innocent passage from Point A to Point B.

In fact, the PLA Navy just did that, sending flotilla through US territorial seas in the Aleutian Islands, pointedly, in September just prior to Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States. And the US Navy was good with that:

“The five PLAN ships transited expeditiously and continuously through the Aleutian Island chain in a manner consistent with international law.”

The Chinese stunt appeared to me to be a successful piece of inoculation by the PRC, one that neutralized the “presumptuous Chinese humbled by superior U.S. power in the place they wish was their back yard” narrative that I think the China hawks hope to advance by executing a South China Sea sailthrough.

And it emphasized the unwelcome point that any South China Sea sailthrough under international law is meaningless in terms of the territorial, island-building, and sovereignty assertions the U.S. is purporting to challenge.

So, sailthrough upside rather limited.

What about the downside?

Perhaps President Obama is mindful that a sailthrough, in addition to serving as a polarizing piece of anti-PRC theater for the military pivot, will provide the PRC with a further pretext for overtly and irrevocably militarizing the islands.

Which is already happening.

[O]fficials with China’s foreign ministry are claiming military facilities on a series of artificial islands are “for defense purposes only” in reaction to “high-profile display[s] of military strength and frequent and large-scale military drills by certain countries and their allies in the South China Sea …”

Referring to the U.S. and its several multi-national maritime security exercises in the region, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying statement came a day after a joint U.S. and Australian statement issued on Tuesday in which Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Australian Minister of Defense Marise Payne urged caution on militarizing the South China Sea region.

He is also, I imagine, mindful that sailthrough enthusiasm among our allies is not strong or even universal, despite a flurry of statements and articles that appear to be attempting to logroll the White House by pre-emptively declaring that U.S. credibility is at stake if the much-bruited, never officially announced, and tactically and strategically dubious sailthrough doesn’t happen.

I would guess that allies’ enthusiasm for sending naval vessels to participate in the sailthrough, thereby exposing themselves to the PRC’s economic and diplomatic retaliation, is not high.

On October 15, this unpromising report came out of Australia (bear in mind it’s from the Trade minister. Logrolling cuts both ways; let’s see which way Australia actually jumps after the Ministry of Defence has had its say):

Australia wouldn’t take part in any U.S. naval patrols aimed at testing China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and isn’t taking sides in disputes over one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, Trade Minister Andrew Robb said.

Robb’s remarks came after foreign Minister Julie Bishop met U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry this week and said Australia is “on the same page” with the U.S. on the sea, a $5 trillion-a-year shipping route that the American navy has patrolled largely unchallenged since World War II.

And for some allies, even providing lip service to U.S. efforts to uphold the international order against Chinese encroachments seems to be a challenge.

ROK President Park’s recent visit to Washington apparently did not yield all that the US desired in terms of pivot-related enthusiasm.

Park has worked to warm up ties with China and raised some eyebrows in Washington when she attended Beijing’s military parade to mark the end of World War Two last month.

Obama said the United States wanted to see a strong South Korean relationship with China, just as it wanted such a relationship itself, but Washington wanted to see Seoul speak out when Beijing did things that weakened international rules.

Obama was apparently referring to China’s behavior in pursuit of maritime claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, which has alarmed Asian neighbors.

President Park took a decidedly different tack:

Ms. Park said several times during the press conference that China’s cooperation is needed with the U.S. on issues such as nuclear talks with North Korea to economic development. She said her government wants to “fully utilize” China’s influence in regional issues.

The conventional narrative is that the ROK’s current tilt toward the PRC results from a combination of fear and greed.

But a third reason is that the United States is locked into a deep-tongued, slobbery embrace with Shinzo Abe’s Japan as America’s indispensable pivot partner.

South Korean hostility toward Japan is, of course, partly related toward Prime Minister Abe’s ostentatious nostalgia for a powerful Japan of the kind that killed Korea’s men, raped its women, and sought to obliterate its culture during the 1930s and 40s.

But it has more to do with the fact that the ROK and Japan are locked in a zero-sum economic battle and Abe is doing his best to eat South Korea’s dosirak:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is continuing with “Abenomics,” an economic policy based on massive quantitative easing and weakening of the yen, which Japan claims will save it from its “lost” two decades.

While Japan has partly succeeded in boosting its economy, that seems to be based on the sacrifice of other countries, of which Korea has been hit the hardest.

Korea is concerned that it will be the biggest victim of Japan’s “beggar thy neighbor” policy.

“Countries like Korea and Germany, where exports take a huge part and the domestic market is relatively small, are damaged most. Korea is especially so, as its export items overlap with those of Japan,” Lee said.

Korea has been suffering from the massive quantitative easing by Japan as the won/yen rate has fallen to the lowest level in more than seven years. The Hyundai Research Institute warns that Korea may see its exports, the only sustaining pillar of an economy that has lost steam, decrease by 8.8 percent due to the weak yen.

And:

[T]he international community seems to be tolerating Japan’s manipulation as it has been in such a long slump.

For “international community,” read “United States” in my opinion. The Obama administration is completely in the tank for Abe since keeping Abe happy is essential if he is going to push unpopular pivot-friendly initiatives like constitutional reinterpretation and Futenma relocation down the throats of the Japanese electorate.

In self-defense, the ROK has little choice but to tilt to the PRC, thereby seriously complicating the US pursuit of regional leadership status not only on the South China Sea issue, but on North Korea as well.

So far the pivot, in addition to delivering tensions with the PRC, has done a good job of revealing divisions and uncertainty among America’s allies.

And it will be rather difficult for the sailthrough to deliver the galvanizing “freedom (+ Vietnam) vs. PRC despotism” confrontation that papers over the rifts, something that I imagine weighs on President Obama’s mind as he considers his options.

If the sailthrough happens—and even if it doesn’t—the United States will continue to wrestle with fundamental and intractable contradictions within the alliance.

And undoubtedly, the Beltway consensus will be that the only way out is more, better, and more resolute escalation.

Or, as the busy pivoteers at the Pentagon and think tanks put it: Ka-ching!

(Republished from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
 
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  1. 5371 says:

    Obama is the guy who lost a bet and now has to pay up by running naked around the campus. He’s trying to put it off as long as possible without getting people too indignant, and busily figuring out the time and circumstances when he will attract the least attention.

  2. Kiza says:

    The most interesting in this article is that South Korea appears to be opposing the US deputizing Japan for the role of the regional sheriff of the West Pacific. And South Korea is just one of the potential members of the anti-China alliance. Most other nations, with the exception of Vietnam, have a financially powerful Chinese minority and it is unlikely that they will gladly let their nations directly confront China. If China plays smartly, it could easily weaken the anti-China alliance to the point that US needs to get involved directly. Therefore, the “Pivot” appears to come down to Abe’s Japan and Vietnam as the only participants of certainty.

    In summary, it appears that a strong anti-China alliance was much easier announced than created.

  3. denk says:

    hey uncle sham,
    whats with all this fon craps , china has never inhibited anybody’s fon ?

    unitedsnake, wanted by world court for state terrorism.

    1984:

    Daniel Ortega elected president; US mines Nicaraguan harbours and is condemned by the World Court for doing so. [1]

    January-April – CIA operatives known as Unilaterally Controlled Latino Assets (UCLAs) sow mines in major Nicaragua ports on both the Pacific and Atlantic side of the country. The Contras begin issuing communiqués, drafted by the CIA, warning the shipping insurance company, Lloyd’s of London, that freighters and tankers entering Nicaraguan harbors risk major damage. [2]

    The explicit purpose of the mining operations, North and NSC colleague, Constantine Menges, report to McFarlane in a top-secret March 2, 1984, memorandum entitled “Special Activities in Nicaragua,” is “to severely disrupt the flow of shipping essential to Nicaraguan trade during the peak export period.” In order to “advance our overall goal of applying stringent economic pressure” and to “further impair the already critical fuel capacity in Nicaragua” they recommend an even more dramatic operation—to sink an oil tanker in a Nicaraguan harbor. “It is entirely likely that once a ship has been sunk, no insurers will cover ships calling in Nicaraguan ports,” states the memorandum, effectively ending Nicaragua’s access to Western petroleum. McFarlane authorizes the plan and briefs President Reagan on March 5. But the operation never comes to fruition, perhaps because the CIA’s mining of Nicaragua’s harbors explodes into an international scandal three weeks later*

    if this isnt a violation of fon then i dunno whats ?

    update
    criminal still at large, currently appointing itself as
    enforcer of fon in scs !

  4. denk says:

    DIVIDE AND CONQUER, oldest trick in the imperialists playbook,
    setting nations against nations, even turning friends into bitter foes,
    breaking up close knit families.
    unitedsnake is truely a destroyer, in every sense of the word !!!
    a country that built up its obscene wealth on the misery of the rest of the world.

    *many families have been torn apart over the issue; there are parents and children who no longer speak to each other; longtime friends who turn the other way when they pass each other on the streets. The issue of the naval base has also divided the village haenyo, the women divers who set out in boats each day to collect the day’s catch of seafood (Jeju island has a matriarchal society, embodied by these strong, mostly middle-aged women who are the breadwinners of their families) and who once were a tightly-knit social group.

    https://consortiumnews.com/2015/01/08/resisting-a-navy-base-on-chinas-periphery/

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