Russia's Past Can Help Explain China's South China Sea Strategy

Lyle J. Goldstein

Key point: China has studied the Soviet Union in detail.

The “sail by” of USS Lassen within the 12 nautical mile claim line of the new Chinese facilities on Subi reef in the South China Sea occurred without major incident last week. Despite some fiery Chinese rhetoric, war has not broken out and that is a profoundly good thing. Actually, nothing much has changed at all, so it seems. The tense stalemate persists as before. China will continue to build up its new “bases” in and among the Spratly islets. The U.S. will continue to patrol regularly and exercise with its alliance partners. Perhaps, as Xi Jinping said not so long ago, the Pacific Ocean really is big enough to accommodate the interests of both China and the U.S.?

There has been plenty of grousing in the last few months on the right and within U.S. national security circles about how excessive “kibitzing” and hand-wringing preceded the Lassen’s recent patrol. “Too little, too late” will be the inevitable critique of the Obama Administration. But perhaps the Administration that gave U.S. foreign policy the underappreciated legacy of “Don’t do stupid stuff” – an approach much criticized in the Syrian context – could be forgiven for exercising due caution when it comes to escalating a conflict with another nuclear power in that power’s backyard. Perhaps Obama’s national security advisors understand that what might begin as cutters “blasting away” with water cannons could rapidly transition to anti-ship cruise missiles sinking warships, to missile and air attacks on bases, and even to a nuclear exchange targeting cities. That escalation chain could take hours not days and would certainly constitute “stupid stuff” if such a military conflict was fought over “rocks and reefs.”

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