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How Do We Deal With a Self-Isolating China?

“It’s on China not to be isolated,” said Admiral Harry Harris to David Feith of the Wall Street Journal in an interview published this month. “It’s on them to conduct themselves in ways that aren’t threatening, that aren’t bullying, that aren’t heavy-handed with smaller countries.”

The chief of US Pacific Command is correct, of course. His comment, the WSJ noted, “raises a basic question.” As the paper asks, “At what point is it prudent to conclude that China is committed to the path of bullying and revanchism?”

As early as the beginning of the decade, Beijing has engaged in a series of hostile acts that, with abbreviated time-outs, has continued to this day. Even if one argues that China’s commitment to provocative conduct occurred later or has yet to be made, the country is roiling its periphery at this moment, most notably in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Washington has not openly confronted the Chinese, presumably to give Beijing leaders a graceful way to move away from provocative policies. Admiral Harris, for instance, says that unsafe Chinese intercepts of American aircraft in international airspace were the result of “poor airmanship, not some signal from Chinese leadership to do something unsafe in the air.”

Reckless contact has also occurred on the surface of international waters. Beijing has declined to apply the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, which both the Chinese and American navies signed in 2014, to coast guard and law enforcement vessels. Beijing uses these craft as well as fishing trawlers for aggressive conduct off the shorelines of its neighbors.

Pacific Command is exceedingly diplomatic about these situations as well. “We recognize that there’s a gap there,” Harris told Feith, referring to the Code. “We shouldn’t discount the positives because there are still negatives. We should embrace the positives, continue to work on them, and then work on the negatives.”

Harris’s approach sounds reasonable, but Beijing’s conduct has generally become more troubling over time. In recent weeks, it has surrounded both Scarborough Shoal, which is close to the main Philippine island of Luzon, and the islets the Japanese call the Senkakus in the East China Sea with hundreds of fishing trawlers and large coast guard vessels. Tokyo this week released a video of Chinese craft in its waters.

The challenge for Harris—and more generally for the US—is to defuse situations before incidents occur. Beijing, unfortunately, appears to be signaling one is coming soon. An anonymous source speaking to the South China Morning Post said China might begin reclamation of Scarborough Shoal, sometime after the upcoming G20 meeting in Hangzhou the first week of next month and before the US election.

Reclamation of that feature, which would be preceded by surrounding the shoal with Chinese vessels, would be an inflection point. By pouring concrete over coral, Beijing would be securing its possession of Scarborough. It seized the shoal from Manila in early 2012 by preventing Philippine vessels from approaching the area.

President Obama reportedly warned the Chinese in March that there would be serious consequences for trying to reclaim Scarborough, “a stark admonition” as the Financial Times put it.

Imposing consequences of that sort would surely come as a surprise to the Chinese because Washington, over the course of decades, has been reluctant to exact costs for dangerous conduct, including encounters on and over international water. Consequently, Beijing might now feel safe to ignore American warnings, no matter how earnestly delivered or sincerely intended.

And that brings us back to Admiral Harris. He and his predecessors at Pacific Command, following the lead of Washington policymakers, have tried to moderate China’s conduct through engagement of its military. “We don’t want China to be isolated,” Harris told Feith. “Isolation is a bad place to be.” Yes, isolation is, as the admiral termed it, “dangerous,” but in the long run so is failure to hold Beijing accountable for acts of aggression, large and small.

Soon, perhaps just after the G20, the world will discover if years of Washington’s—and the US Navy’s—patient bridge-building diplomacy has moderated China’s challenge to its neighbors and the international system that America defends.

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