The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning takes a test cruise. (Li Tang/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

The United States 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 United States 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 U.S. warships will be “just steaming in international waters,” and that this shouldn’t be seen by Beijing as “provocative.”

Since 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 insisted that China won’t militarize the islands.

What will China do as U.S. 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 the Chinese will do no more than shadow U.S. vessels, and perhaps attempt to block their passage, rather than open fire.

The maritime game of chicken that’s looming could easily escalate out of control. So the United States and China would be wise to agree on clearer rules for dealing with incidents at sea, before vessels actually come into contact. Superpowers shouldn’t make “invidious premature choices,” warned Bilahari Kausikan , a Singapore ambassador-at- large and former top official of the foreign ministry.

Southeast Asian leaders, who have been worried that Obama has been too passive about China’s island grab, appear relieved. They want Washington to follow through on the logic of the pivot, which was that U.S. military focus should shift from the Middle East, where it has been bogged down in seemingly unwinnable wars, to Asia, where many believe the United States’ economic future lies.

“America has been distracted,” a former top Singapore official said. “There’s been a lack of focus on Asia. If America had been more alert, the Chinese could not have moved in the South China Sea. They’re opportunists. They will continue to push until they hit a wall.”

Southeast Asian leaders were pleased when administration officials began talking about the pivot back in November 2011. But they have been disappointed at the lack of follow-through, which some say encouraged the Chinese to press ahead with their reclamation of reefs in the South China Sea, turning them into artificial islands where the Chinese could assert sovereignty and eventually build military bases.

The Chinese concluded several years ago that the Obama administration “would talk but do nothing” about the disputed islands, a senior Singapore official said. The official speculated that the Chinese may have been “rushing” to construct the islands because they feared that the next U.S. president would have a more “robust” stance than Obama.

The debate here about checking Chinese power in Asia has a different (and more positive) tone than the relentless Washington focus on Russia and the Middle East. Officials here see the Middle East as an unfortunate diversion from the more important challenge of a rising China. Obama would probably say the same thing.

Kausikan said he’s not worried about a U.S. retreat from the Middle East. “ ‘Offshore balancer’ is fine,” he said, using the term foreign-policy experts use to describe a less engaged U.S. military strategy in the Middle East. “When you tried to be an onshore balancer, you [messed] it up royally,” he said, referring to the Iraq war. “Now you are finding a new equilibrium. And you are part of Asia, inextricably.”

Talking with Southeast Asian officials is the foreign policy equivalent of changing the channel. The Middle East is a continuing demonstration of the limits of U.S. military power, and antipathy toward its use. But in the Pacific region, countries invite that same U.S. power to check China’s bid for regional dominance. The common theme, perhaps, is that nations want the United States to fight their wars, until they go bad.

“We speak of the U.S. as a ‘benign hegemon,’ ” said Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s former ambassador to Washington. Have you ever heard that phrase applied to the U.S. role in the Middle East?

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