If unilateralist interventionism was the earned criticism of the George W. Bush administration, President Obama's foreign policy legacy will be one of multilateralist vacillation and retreat. The stark contrast between rhetoric and results has been manifest in administration policies on Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Ukraine - and, until now, in the South China Sea as well.
For more than two years the United States failed to act to enforce universal rights to freedom of navigation and overflight in the face of China's assertion of sovereignty over virtually the entirety of that international waterway.
Beijing has demonstrated that its territorial claim is not empty rhetoric. China has built artificial islands on rocks and reefs and has claimed maritime sovereignty over the international waters surrounding those features. It has also erected structures and built runways that provide enhanced military capabilities, further threatening countries in the region and the international commerce that flows through those waters.
The president, the secretaries of state and defense, and other administration officials have repeatedly asserted America's core interest in navigational and overflight freedoms. Earlier this month, defense officials made explicit Washington's intention to challenge China's territorial claims by sending U.S. Navy warships within 12 nautical miles of China's claimed territory.
A destroyer has now sailed through the disputed waters, but it is not known what discussions may have taken place between American and Chinese officials to prevent what should be a routine Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise from being seen as an act of provocation justifying a militant Chinese response and threatening unwanted escalation. Curiously, despite widespread media reports of the FON patrol, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter the next day refused to confirm to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the transit had occurred. It took repeated questioning by several senators, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to finally extract grudging acknowledgement of the operation. Inadvertently, the secretary conveyed the sense that the United States had something to hide in plying international waters.
While it is perfectly appropriate for Washington to avoid bombast in declaring its FON operations, it is important, after years of delay, that the world know that the navigational freedoms that ensure international commerce are being protected. In that regard, the administration was wise to announce that this exercise was not a one-off event, but rather part of a sustained series of such operations. If carried out, that pledge would avoid the mistake successive administrations have made in severely constraining transits of the Taiwan Strait because of Chinese objections - even when weather or other operational imperatives made it the logical route. That practice only makes the rare passage a special event and an occasion for Chinese ire, real or feigned.
Given the Obama administration's emphasis on multilateralism, it could soften the appearance of a U.S.-China confrontation by inviting other countries in the region -say, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines - to join in a Freedom of Navigation flotilla. One vessel from each would serve the purpose.
The exercise would proceed under the principles of both customary international law and the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), which the US has not ratified but observes in practice (while China, which is a member, flouts its standards).
Ideally, all member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would eventually participate in such periodic exercises, but a couple, along with Japan, would be a good start. At the very least, all countries in the region should applaud the U.S. action. Meanwhile, since peaceful use of international waters is a non-event, Beijing should heed its own advice to Washington: Don't make trouble out of nothing.