HAVING MADE a “rebalancing” toward Asia a pillar of his foreign policy, President Obama may face a fateful test from China in his final months in office. President Xi Jinping already broke a promise he made to Mr. Obama not to militarize islets his regime has been building up in two parts of the South China Sea. Now Beijing appears to be contemplating building a base on a contested shoal just 150 miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines. A failure by the administration to prevent this audacious step could unravel much of what it has done to bolster U.S. influence in the region.
Chinese development of Scarborough Shoal, a collection of rocks and coral reefs it seized from the Philippines four years ago, would escalate its already-belligerent behavior in the South China Sea in a number of ways. Until now, Beijing’s landfill work and construction of airstrips have occurred on islets it already controlled that are considerably closer to the Chinese mainland. Scarborough Shoal lies about 500 miles from China. A base there could allow Chinese radar and missiles to threaten Manila, as well as Philippine bases where U.S. forces are positioned.
Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese venture would concretize Beijing’s refusal to abide by international law in resolving territorial disputes with its neighbors. The Philippines responded to the seizure of Scarborough Shoal by filing a case with a U.N. tribunal. A ruling by the panel, expected in the coming weeks, could reject China’s expansive claim to 80 percent of the South China Sea, based on a “nine-dash line” dating to the 1940s. Acts that defy that ruling, in turn, would suggest that Mr. Xi intends to use brute force to advance China’s claims across the region.
The Obama administration has been trying to head off the Chinese action. Most notably, it has significantly expanded military cooperation with the Philippines, providing millions of dollars in new aid and agreeing on the placement of U.S. assets on five bases there. Last month, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter ended 11 days of U.S.-Philippine military exercises by announcing that the two nations would conduct joint air and maritime patrols. Soon afterward, defense officials announced that U.S. planes flew near Scarborough Shoal on three different days.
The question is whether this will be enough. In a congressional hearing last month , senators from both parties questioned the administration’s limited use of freedom-of-navigation operations, in which U.S. ships sail near disputed territories claimed by China; according to the Wall Street Journal, the White House canceled one patrol last month in an attempt to “lower the temperature” over Scarborough.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken assured the senators that “we have been very actively and very aggressively messaging China privately and publicly.” But he also offered an all-too-familiar Obama administration analysis: China’s aggressive moves, he said, would be self-defeating, because they would have “the net effect of surrounding itself with increasingly angry, increasingly suspicious neighbors who are increasingly close to the United States.”
That is true enough, for now. But if the administration fails to stop a Chinese buildup on Scarborough Shoal, its allies are likely to conclude that alliance with Washington is useless.