China's aggressive moves in the South China Sea should motivate U.S. President Barack Obama to discover his inner John F. Kennedy.
In 1962, after months of denial and inaction as the Soviet Union first placed defensive weapons systems on Cuba, then expanded them to include ominous offensive capabilities, President Kennedy finally took a stand.
On Oct. 22 of that year, Kennedy told the nation and the world:
"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."
The stakes in the South China Sea today are nowhere near as fateful as those Kennedy faced during the Cuban Missile Crisis -- nuclear weapons, for example, are not presently part of the equation. The president was also making it clear that Moscow could not escape responsibility for any threat emanating from the island. Today, Beijing is the sole actor creating the problem.
But the methodology employed then by the Soviet Communist Party in Latin America -- the creeping aggression -- is being replicated by the Chinese Communist Party off the shores of Southeast Asia today. And the need for decisive American action against the growing threat is as great now as it was then, even if it is not as dramatically obvious.
The trend of Chinese "salami slice" tactics has been protracted over a period of several years, unlike the sudden offensive escalation by Moscow during the summer and fall of 1962. But the pace of Beijing's assertive moves has accelerated.
The seemingly isolated island seizure in the Paracels in 1974 was followed by various construction activities over the years, as well as claims in the Spratly Islands. In 2009, China's nine-dash line dramatically upped the ante with its sweeping claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. Next came a series of maritime actions interfering with other claimant nations' fishing activities and freedom of navigation, as well as some some aggressive brushes with U.S. Navy operations.
In the last few years, China has undertaken a major island-building program on otherwise uninhabitable rocks and reefs (a few other countries have done the same, but on a far lesser scale), followed by construction of various types of facilities. In each case, China asserted maritime claims around the manmade sites as if they were natural land features entitled to the protections of international law.
This year, despite Beijing's assurances that it would not militarize its claimed islands -- assurances explicitly reinforced by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his meeting with President Obama at a bilateral summit in California -- China has rapidly installed a series of military facilities. These include air defense missile systems, acquisition radar, runways, hangars, and fighter jets.
Offensive missiles are the logical next step under Beijing's rationale that it can do whatever it wants to do on what it claims as its own sovereign territory.
The Obama administration has responded with a series of firm declarations about peaceful resolution of disputes; U.S. agnosticism on the merits of various countries' claims to natural land features; and a commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight.
But U.S. actions to assert those universal rights have been halting and ambivalent. For example, it has conducted only two passages near the China-claimed islands, neither of which has directly challenged China's assertion of sovereignty over recognized international waters.
Instead, the U.S. Defense Department has conducted innocent passages authorized by the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention for naval transits through a state's conceded territorial waters. This means the USS Lassen and USS Curtis Wilbur, complying with UNCLOS requirements for innocent passage, must have avoided lingering; collecting intelligence, survey, or research information; launching manned or unmanned aircraft or other military devices; conducting exercises; or activating fire control radar.
That is hardly the normal operating mode for U.S. Navy vessels steaming on the high seas. When the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and U.S. Navy commanders assert that "the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows," they should add the words, "and in the manner it allows."
Such ambiguous operations appear intended to make a minimalist assertion of navigational freedom without too directly provoking China. But the U.S. president must make clear which party is guilty of provocations in this situation, just as his predecessor did with the Soviets in the 1960s.
Obama might consider saying something like this:
"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard a missile or other attack from a natural or manmade island claimed by China against any vessel or aircraft of the United States or its allies as an attack on the United States, requiring an appropriate military response against Chinese assets and/or territory. The targeting, directing, or painting of a fire control radar system on any U.S. or allied vessel or aircraft will also be considered a hostile act requiring an appropriate response."
At the same time, the president should direct the U.S. Navy to immediately commence regular, unambiguous FONOPS -- excluding innocent passages which concede territorial seas status. Prudence dictates restoring navigational and aviation normality in the South China Sea before Beijing claims an Air Defense Identification Zone or takes other aggressive steps to militarize not just an individual island but the entire region.
The present ambiguous course has not assuaged China; continuing that course only increases the risks of further miscalculation. History has taught too many painful lessons about that scenario, including the ultimate lesson taught by Europe's original salami slicer.