Not content to diminish American power on his watch, Barack Obama seems dead set on a course of action to ensure that he locks in that sadly reduced America for his successor.

For some years the Chinese have been aggressively pushing their influence into the South China Sea. This is not some obscure region. Forty percent of the world’s trade and fifty percent of all energy trade passes through that area. Also at stake are undetermined quantities of oil, natural gas, and minerals on the sea bed. (full run down)

The key terrain here are the Spratly and Paracel Islands. These are tiny and mostly uninhabitable. A large number of them are only visible at low tide. These are the competing claims. Pay special attention to the red line that marks what China claims as territorial waters:

south china sea claims

The area is hotly contested. In 1974, Vietnam and China fought a short naval action for control of the Parcels which Vietnam lost. They had a rematch in 1988, with the same results.

To bolster its claim, China has set about building artificial islands and putting bases on them.

Fiery-Cross-reef-China-reclamation-South-China-Sea
(Lots more photos like this.)

Finally, after nearly seven years in office, the Obama administration was goaded into action. The idea was to conduct a “freedom of navigation” exercise near the Chinese artificial island of Subi Reef:

subi reef

The idea was that the USS Lassen, and Arleigh Burke-class Aegis-equipped destroyer would transit the area near Sufi Reef and do so in a manner that indicated the South China Sea was considered international waters. This is important. A warship transiting another nation’s territorial waters, under the concept of “innocent passage,” may not do anything associated with military activity. No sonar, no launching of aircraft, no activation of fire control radar, no use of firearms, etc.

Now, the administration is preparing to endorse what the military calls enhanced “freedom of navigation operations,” which would have American ships and aircraft venture within 12 nautical miles of at least some artificial islands built by Beijing. Washington believes that a crucial principle is at stake in the dispute over the South China Sea — the international laws and rules that serve as the foundation of the global economy.

“If one country selectively ignores these rules for its own benefit, others will undoubtedly follow, eroding the international legal system and destabilizing regional security and the prosperity of all Pacific states,” Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September.

The admiral, who oversees U.S. forces across the Asia-Pacific region, said he favored sending ships and planes within the 12-mile zone to make clear the Chinese claims to “territorial sea” carried no legal weight. The patrols had been conducted routinely until 2012, before Beijing launched its vast land reclamation work.

His comments drew an angry response from China’s Foreign Ministry, whichsaid Beijing “opposes any country’s attempt to challenge China’s territorial sovereignty and security under the pretext of safeguarding navigation” and urged the United States “to exercise caution in its words and deeds.”

What happened?

But over the last week, Pentagon and administration officials have struggled to explain exactly what the Lassen did when it sailed near Subi Reef, where China has constructed an island dredged from the sea floor.

When questioned by Foreign Policy, officials offered conflicting accounts as to whether the ship took steps to directly challenge China’s maritime claims in the strategic waterway — or whether it pulled its punches, tacitly conceding Beijing’s position.

Initially, officials insisted the Lassen carried out a freedom of navigation operation, which could mean the vessel operated sonar, had its helicopters take off from the deck, or lingered in the area. But other officials said they could not confirm it was a freedom of navigation mission and that the ship may have refrained from any helicopter flights or intelligence gathering — and instead simply sailed through without loitering or circumnavigating the area.

Further adding to the confusion, the P-8 surveillance plane accompanying the Lassen appears to have stayed outside the 12-mile range of the man-made island, a boundary that delimits territorial seas and airspace.

The administration’s mixed messaging has played out publicly in recent days on both sides of the Pacific. U.S. officials told Defense News over the weekend that the Lassen had merely made an “innocent passage” close to the artificial island at Subi Reef — a phrase with a specific meaning under maritime law that applies to sailing through other countries’ territorial waters. On Monday, officials repeated the same claim to U.S. Naval Institute News, saying the ship and an accompanying surveillance plane took steps that would signal acquiescence to Beijing’s claims.

In fact, the US Naval Institute writes that the USS Lassen did conduct an innocent passage:

The decision for Lassen to transit via innocent passage by Subi Reef was made by the White House from a menu of freedom of navigation missions presented by Pentagon and U.S. Pacific Command officials, several sources confirmed to USNI News on Monday.

Under international maritime law, a warship is allowed to make an innocent passage through any nations territorial waters without prior notification if it does not conduct any military operations in transit — like activating fire control radars, firing weapons, conducting drills or transmitting propaganda.

The U.S. does not recognize any of the expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea’s Spratly Island chain — not only by China but also by Vietnam and the Philippines — and believes its ships are within their rights to come within 12 nautical miles of any of the disputed features without having to honor innocent passage rules.

Lassen’s innocent passage was meant by no means a U.S. recognition of any of China’s territorial claims based on their artificial islands, a defense official told USNI News on Monday.

The ambiguous nature of the USS Lassen’s mission is not good. At a time when our allies in the region are clamoring for our attention and China is hellbent on controlling a major marine chokepoint

marine chokepoints

If we do not assert the fact that the South China Sea is open to free transit of maritime traffic then not only will the Chinese be emboldened… more than they are… but also we increase the odds of an armed conflict between the various claimants of territorial sovereignty in the region.

Like so much else the Obama administration does, it is designed for public relations reasons. Just like the infamous “gutsy call” meme the White House started about the no-brain-no-choice strike against bin Laden, here the White House is trying to give the American public the illusion that it actually cares about our national security. And, like every other foreign policy venture this bunch of clowns has attempted for the past seven years, it is ill-considered, blundering, and it will inevitably lead to conflict.