“We’ll decide whether you’re smug or not, you smug shit.”

Sansha Islands

After China declared that it was “not afraid to fight a war” in response to US exercises in the South China Sea, Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote a piece insisting that the US is not provoking China by sending a warship to sail past its fake islands:

In a statement issued Tuesday, the country’s Foreign Ministry warned that U.S. actions had “threatened China’s sovereignty and security interest, and has put the safety of personnel” in danger.

The statement was issued in response to the U.S. decision to dispatch the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen for several hours on a “freedom of navigation” operation near the disputed waters of Subi Reef, which has drawn international attention since China began constructing an artificial island there.

But although the Lassen was deliberately sent to within 12 nautical miles of the feature (12 miles being the hypothetical width of territorial sea around Subi), and despite China warning against the use of “gimmicks,” the U.S. decision should not be seen as a provocation or even deterrence.

Instead, this week’s move was part of a regular program of U.S. military activities around the globe intended to assert the rights of military and civilian vessels to operate anywhere allowed by international law.

The Pentagon oversees dozens of freedom of navigation operations every year targeting excessive maritime claims made by countries ranging from outright antagonists to some of the United States’ closest allies.

In 2014, the U.S. military used these operations to contest claims made by nearly all the countries surrounding the South China Sea, meaning not just China but also the Philippines — a treaty ally — and Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

This also isn’t the first time the U.S. Navy has engaged in freedom of navigation operations near Subi Reef — as recently as 2012, it did so in the Spratly Islands, of which Subi Reef is a part.

Indeed, as U.S. officials have insisted throughout the surprisingly public debate on whether to engage in such operations around Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea, these activities by the Navy are not new, and they do not unfairly target Beijing.

Navy and Pentagon officials have been urging the Obama administration since early summer to green-light freedom of navigation operations around some of China’s features in the South China Sea, but the White House had been hesitant.

More cautious voices in the administration worried that a Chinese overreaction could provoke a crisis without offering much payoff, and they argued that engaging in such activities would reduce the possibility of finding a diplomatic solution to the rising tensions in the region.

But the apparent inability of President Barack Obama to make any headway on the South China Sea issue with his counterpart Xi Jinping during the Chinese leader’s visit to Washington in late September swung the argument in favor of those pushing for such operations.

Xi’s visit actually seems to have convinced many holdouts that there is no diplomatic solution given Beijing’s current intransigence (an extremely ambiguous statement from President Xi about China’s “intention” not to “militarize” the features it occupies notwithstanding).

Subi Reef was one of two likely candidates for the latest freedom of navigation operations in the Spratlys, the other being Mischief Reef.

Both have proven controversial because the Chinese-occupied features were indisputably underwater before Beijing launched its massive island-building campaign last year, and both are too far away from any potential island or rock to fall within another feature’s territorial sea.

The just-concluded operation was not a challenge to China’s claim to Subi Reef itself, but rather to what kind of waters and rights China thinks the reef grants it. It was a case study aimed at challenging the excessive and ambiguous claims that China makes throughout the disputed South China Sea more generally.

After the U.S. move, China responded that “if relevant parties insist on creating tensions in the region and making trouble out of nothing, it may force China to draw the conclusion that we need to strengthen and hasten the buildup of our relevant capabilities.” But despite the apparent seriousness of such warnings, escalating tensions are not inevitable.

How can conflict be avoided?

The best hope for a long-term peaceful solution in the South China Sea is to convince Beijing that it is undermining its own wider interests by maintaining unlawful claims in disputed waters.

Washington has consistently called on Chinese leaders and their counterparts throughout the region to bring their claims in these waters into conformity with international law, and these freedom of navigation operations should be seen as part of that goal.

And the responses from different parts of the Chinese government to the recent operation are telling. Beijing is effectively expressing anger over the Lassen’s operations near Subi, but it is struggling to come up with a legal rationale for its objections.

Of course, a one-off operation will not persuade Beijing to clarify its claims. In fact, that would actually undermine the United States’ position that these activities are normal and not provocative. That means that whatever the protestations from Beijing and others, this will no doubt be just the first of many freedom of navigation operations in and around the Spratly Islands.

The trouble is that provocation doesn’t work that way. There’s an old episode of Mock the Week where the team covers David Cameron’s pre-election declaration that he is “not smug”. David Mitchell replies with spluttering irritation: “We’ll decide whether you’re smug or not, you smug shit.”

Similarly in the case of provocation: I don’t get to decide whether or not my actions are provocative as far as you are concerned. I can claim that they weren’t intentionally provocative, or even that they were entirely licit and non-aggressive and that you shouldn’t be getting your knickers in such a twist, but that’s as far as it goes.

In response to this you might well say that China is behaving like a large, belligerent drunk in a bar, actively searching for an excuse to kick off. To which the answer, of course, is “Yes, that’s the privilege of large, belligerent drunks. The rest of us just have to find a way to live with it.”

Much like Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, this is essentially a military means of transmitting a message – the primary purpose is to communicate to the rest of us that China is ready, willing and able to lose its shit in potentially devastating ways if crossed. There is no urgent strategic goal in either case. Certainly, armchair generals like to witter on about the importance of having naval access to the Mediterranean, but there are two problems with this theory: a) the Mediterranean is not exactly the geopolitical nexus it once was, grandpa, and b) in the event that the Russian did need a handy Black Sea port, they could happily roll in and take it whenever they felt like it (as recent events have amply demonstrated). It happened at the particular time not because of geographical strategic requirements, but of psychological ones: it was a good moment to make a gesture to intimidate everyone.

So, apparently, China has decided that it is going to be the one to assure freedom of the seas (albeit a limited version) within its own sphere of interest, and there’s not a great deal we can do about it.

But on the plus side, we do get to decide whether or not that’s provocative.

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