A maritime game of chicken in East Asia


SINGAPORE: The US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US vessels, and perhaps attempt to block their passage, rather than open opening fire.

The maritime game of chicken that’s looming could easily escalate out of control. So the US 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.

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