Who’s ready for an international crisis in the South China Sea?

Surely, a few members of the Beltway press corps cocked their heads in confusion when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) included the People’s Republic of China in a list of nations threatening global stability in his expansive speech outlining his doctrinal approach to the application of American power overseas.

For too many on the nation’s effete coasts, China is only the place that provides cheap products and buys American debt. Many were perhaps shocked to learn from Rubio that the PRC presents a threat to free commerce and international order posed by China’s territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas.

Though they aren’t the only places where China is pressing its claims on contested territory, the Spratly Island chain is perhaps the most volatile. There, the PRC has created an expanding archipelago of artificial islands that could be used to house military and air assets in the event of a dispute with the other regional powers who lay claim to those islands.

For their part, the Obama administration is not taking the threat posed by this affront to the fragile order in East Asia lightly. On Wednesday, Defense Sec. Ashton Carter revealed his intention to recommend to the president that the U.S. dispatch American Navy surveillance aircraft to fly over those man-made islands in a display of force. Moreover, a small flotilla of U.S. Navy ships will be dispatched to within 12 nautical miles of the land claimed by China.

The Wall Street Journal noted that a standoff between U.S. and Chinese naval forces near the rapidly expanding, airbase-capable islands could escalate tensions between the two great powers, or worse.

Such moves, if approved by the White House, would be designed to send a message to Beijing that the U.S. won’t accede to Chinese territorial claims to the man-made islands in what the U.S. considers to be international waters and airspace.

The Pentagon’s calculation may be that the military planning, and any possible deployments, would increase pressure on the Chinese to make concessions over the artificial islands. But Beijing also could double down, expanding construction in defiance of the U.S. and potentially taking steps to further Chinese claims in the area.

The U.S. has said it doesn’t recognize the man-made islands as sovereign Chinese territory. Nonetheless, military officials said, the Navy has so far not sent military aircraft or ships within 12 nautical miles of the reclaimed reefs to avoid escalating tensions.

“If such action fails to deter China, America will face a hard choice: back down and damage its credibility with friends and allies in the region, or escalate with the risk of being drawn into open conflict with China,” The Journal’s Andrew Browne opined. To ignore this challenge to the geopolitical order in East Asia, however, is to invite more destabilization, likely conflict between regional powers, and the prospect that the United States might be drawn into a spiraling conflict at a time and circumstances not of its choosing.

None of this is optimal from the perspective of this White House, to be sure. But these are the consequences of a foreign policy that appeared to accommodate revanchism in major foreign powers. That threat may no longer be containable.

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