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China takes aim at an ally, but its true target is the US

“We will continue to rally our allies and partners against unlawful and irresponsible behavior,” Vice President Kamala Harris said last week aboard a Philippine coast guard vessel. “When the international rules-based order is threatened somewhere, it is threatened everywhere.”

With those words, spoken near the South China Sea, Harris made the case that the People’s Republic of China is a threat to the United States. She is correct.

China clearly threatened the international order the previous Sunday with an aggressive act against the Philippines, not far from where the vice president spoke. A Chinese coast guard vessel approached a Philippine navy boat towing what appeared to be debris from a Chinese rocket. Chinese sailors then, without permission, severed the line and seized the debris.

The incident took place in Philippine territorial water, about 800 yards off Thitu Island in the South China Sea. Beijing claims sovereignty over Thitu — it lays claim to almost all the reefs, shoals, specks and other features in that body of water, as well as the sea itself — but the island is, in fact, occupied by the Philippines. A 2016 Hague arbitration case, Philippines v. China, rejected China’s outlandish South China Sea sovereignty claims.

The seizure, an act of piracy, also constituted an attack on a Philippine vessel and was, technically, an act of war.

The aggressive Chinese act at Thitu fits a pattern. In March 2009, for instance, Chinese craft unsuccessfully tried to sever the towed sonar array from the USNS Impeccable in international water in the South China Sea. The Impeccable’s crew had to fire water cannons at the Chinese vessels to drive them away.

In December 2016, China’s ships seized a U.S. Navy drone in international water. The crew of the USNS Bowditch, another unarmed reconnaissance vessel, was trying to retrieve the device and repeatedly hailed by radio the Chinese sailors, who ignored their calls. The Chinese, within 500 yards of the American craft, went into the water in a small boat to seize the drone.

If there has been any consistent American foreign policy since the founding of the republic, it has been the defense of the global commons. Yet Washington, in the post-Cold War era, has allowed incident after incident to slide without response. This procrastination and indulgence have not persuaded China to become benign.

American passivity has undermined not only the international order but also American interests. “We’ve had some rocky times, but the fact is it’s a critical, critical relationship, from our perspective,” President Biden said to his Philippine counterpart, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., in September at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. “I hope you feel the same way.”

Manila shunned Washington and embraced China during the tenure of Marcos’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte, who wanted to end critical defense relationships with Washington, had always been virulently anti-American, but the Obama administration made it easy for him to be so.

In the spring of 2012, for example, Chinese and Philippine vessels sailed in close proximity to the contested Scarborough Shoal, a mere 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon and guarding Manila and Subic bays. Washington brokered an agreement between Beijing and Manila for both sides to withdraw their craft; only the Philippines did so, however, leaving China in control of the feature.

Washington, trying to avoid confrontation with China, did not enforce the agreement it had arranged. The White House’s inaction just made the problem bigger, however. By doing nothing, President Obama empowered the most belligerent elements in the Chinese capital by showing everyone else there that duplicity — and aggression — worked.

An emboldened Beijing then ramped up pressure on Second Thomas Shoal, another Philippine feature where China has continually employed Scarborough-like tactics of swarming the area with vessels, and on the Senkakus, eight specks under Japanese administration in the East China Sea. Within a few months of its victory at Scarborough, Beijing started reclaiming nearby features in the Spratlys, turning coral into sprawling military bases.

Washington, through its timidity, paved the way for Beijing to take ever more provocative actions and led American allies to question Washington’s leadership and trustworthiness as an ally. This, even though the United States and the Philippines are parties to a 1951 mutual defense treaty.

Harris, speaking with President Marcos, referred to that treaty as “an unwavering commitment that we have to the Philippines.” The vice president is right to reaffirm that obligation because defending the Philippines against China’s assaults is, in reality, defending America.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

Tags Biden Joe Biden Kamala Harris Obama Politics of the United States Territorial disputes in the South China Sea US foreign policy US-China relations US-China tensions

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