The Chinese government prides itself on its foreign policy acumen and strategic thinking, but it’s been a rough few weeks for Chinese foreign policy in Southeast Asia. With the U.S. freedom of navigation operation, the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague on the Philippine suit, Beijing’s bullying within ASEAN, the hollow visit by Xi Jinping to Hanoi, and their client’s absolute drubbing in the Myanmar elections, China has seen reversal after reversal in the region.
It’s time to ask whether Beijing is ready to readjust its foreign policy or double down on its current trajectory, which seems to undermine its long-term strategic interests in the region. And as U.S. President Barack Obama heads to the region, he should look to capitalize on Beijing’s missteps.
The United States finally, on October 27, conducted its freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, a low tide elevation that China has built an island upon. Yes, it took too long between Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue to the actual FONOP. And yes, the White House and others did this without a clear and concerted message. As Peter Dutton and Bonnie Glaser have argued, the Pentagon should explain the legal basis for its operation and clarify what message it intended to send.