Critics are lining up to condemn the Obama administration’s apparent delay of a third freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea as yet another sign of weakness, but there is larger strategic game underway that may explain the administration’s decision. Other simultaneous U.S. actions may have deterred China from occupying and reclaiming land at Scarborough Shoal, a disputed atoll only 140 miles from Manila. If this hypothesis is correct, the administration deserves praise, not blame, for taking effective, measured steps to deter a potentially destabilizing Chinese escalation.
Before explaining this hypothesis in detail, it is necessary to explain why a Chinese move to occupy or reclaim Scarborough Shoal would be so provocative. First, Scarborough is a uniquely valuable piece of (mostly underwater) real estate. It is geographically isolated in the northeastern quadrant of the South China Sea, far from the main Spratly and Paracel island groups. If China constructs facilities on Scarborough akin to those it built in the Spratlys, then Chinese radar, aircraft, and cruise missiles could one day easily cover Manila and several Philippine bases to which the United States recently gained access. An outpost at Scarborough would also give Beijing a “strategic triangle” of airstrips in the South China Sea.
Additionally, establishing a base on the shoal would be a clear violation of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which prohibits the occupation of currently uninhabited features. China seized administrative control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 following a failed U.S. effort to de-escalate a standoff, but the shoal has not been occupied by any claimant to date. Occupation of Scarborough would signal that China has little intention of ever concluding a binding Code of Conduct with its Southeast Asian neighbors, which has languished in negotiations for 14 years.