Why Is the Pentagon Honoring a Chinese General?

General Fang Fenghui, China’s chief of general staff, is now in the US on a five-day tour of American military facilities, including the naval air station in San Diego, where he inspected the USS Ronald Reagan, one of America’s 10 active aircraft carriers. Most notably, he will receive a “full-military-honors arrival ceremony” at the Pentagon on Thursday.

The visit comes as a fleet of about 80 Chinese vessels, both military and civilian, are protecting a drilling rig that China National Offshore Oil Corporation, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, positioned just off Vietnam’s coast at the beginning of this month. China’s ships rammed and collided with Vietnamese craft defending waters that Hanoi believes to be within its exclusive economic zone. The rig’s location is near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

Beijing, with its infamous nine-dashed line on its official maps, takes the position that about 90 percent of that body of water is China’s, including the drill site. The expansive—and largely indefensible—claim includes the coastal waters of Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia as well as Vietnam. 

Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to calm the situation. “He urged both sides on both calls to de-escalate tensions, to engage in high-level dialogue, to ensure safe conduct by their vessels at sea, and to resolve the dispute through peaceful means,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, referring to Kerry’s conversations with his Chinese and Vietnamese counterparts. The Chinese flatly rejected these even-handed comments, blasting Kerry for just trying to keep the peace in the region. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post has called the exchange a “war of words.”

According to one Chinese oil official, Beijing apparently directed its state oil company, commonly known as CNOOC, to drill in order to bolster its sovereignty claim. “This reflected the will of the central government and is also related to the US strategy on Asia,” said the official, speaking anonymously to Reuters, about drilling in Vietnam’s waters. “It is not commercially driven.”

Beijing, with its particularly provocative move, is obviously testing President Obama, who had just left the region after an eight-day tour to reassure allies and friends. Vietnam was the perfect target for the Chinese, as it is not allied with Washington. Yet the Chinese gambit nonetheless affects US interests as it directly impinges freedom of navigation, something America has defended for more than two centuries. Moreover, Beijing’s act against Vietnam’s coastal water mirrors moves against American allies Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

The Chinese do not take American warnings seriously, reports the Wall Street Journal. And why should they? General Fang is about to get military honors while his country’s vessels are deliberately creating turmoil and directly challenging American interests.

Washington may think it is preserving regional order by seeking to develop a cooperative relationship with Beijing—hence the honor for Fang—but Chinese policymakers evidently perceive them differently, seeing America’s hopeful and generous moves as symptoms of weakness. After all, they have continually increased the pressure on their neighbors and challenged Washington directly, especially during the last half decade.

In any event, there is no arguing with history. China has, in recent years, been harassing American vessels in international waters, dismembering the Philippines, and appropriating international airspace. The Chinese have regularly violated the territorial integrity of Japan with their probes on the sea and in the air. Last October, for no apparent reason, Beijing publicly boasted about its ability to kill Americans in the tens of millions.

The assumptions that guide American policy toward China are obviously incorrect. It’s not too late to change course and maybe even send General Fang home without his Pentagon ceremony.

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