Beijing's reef building in South China Sea will continue

Du Ping says the USS Lassen's visit to China-claimed islands was good theatre, but it won't stop Beijing from building on them

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 October, 2015, 2:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 1:59pm

The significance of US President Barack Obama's action in dispatching a warship to sail close to China's man-made islands in the South China Sea is more political than military. By acting soon after President Xi Jinping's first state visit to the US, Obama made clear his displeasure with China's unwavering position on its territorial claims. It is rumoured among Chinese journalists covering the visit that during their meeting, Xi rebuffed pressure to halt reclamation and construction on isles and reefs.

READ MORE: China, US won’t cut off contact over USS Lassen’s sail-by in the South China Sea, say experts

The political significance reflects the fact that Washington's goal of confronting China in the South China Sea, and means of doing it, are both limited. For the past two years, China has been single-mindedly building the reefs while the US, though apparently concerned, could not figure out what to do about it. In fact, the Obama administration cannot do anything to deter a determined Xi.

If China is pushed too hard, its patience may not endure. It is a delicate game of nerves

So why did the US make a fuss by sending a single warship? It seemed to be a staged performance for the benefit of its Asian allies. The US military's disproportionate publicity of the mission tends to be evidence of that. Geopolitically, it may be seen as a diplomatic victory. The Philippines, Japan and possibly Vietnam were all satisfied that Uncle Sam was seen to have challenged their common adversary on their behalf.

Meanwhile, China's slow response was a public relations failure. According to its defence ministry, two Chinese warships deployed in the area closely monitored the movements of the US vessel and sent warnings, but this information was pre-empted by the US narrative. Indeed, China has a lot to learn from the US in shaping domestic and international perceptions of this kind of incident.

READ MORE: Beijing has options if US escalates challenge to its claims in South China Sea

According to a US military official, the USS Lassen's patrol is the first of a series of visits aimed at testing China's territorial claims, meaning Beijing will have to meet constant challenges or provocations. What action is China likely to take in the future? The answer will depend on the US military's behaviour and China's own perceptions. China might still grin and bear incidents that fall short of overt provocative actions. But if China is pushed too hard, its patience may not endure. It is a delicate game of nerves.

For China, the bottom line of its South China Sea strategy is clear. As long as there is no physical interference with or obstruction to its reef building, it will not be distracted by temptation to engage in or escalate any time-wasting tussle with the US. China knows well that Washington has no stomach for stopping it from building air strips or other facilities in the South China Sea. The US Navy may make its regular patrols but China will not be deterred.

Du Ping is a senior political commentator with Hong Kong Phoenix Satellite Television