Whatever the reason for the Chinese refusal to let nine U.S. Navy ships dock in Hong Kong, one casualty of the “misunderstanding” has been U.S. credibility in Asia. Nations throughout the region watched the events closely, not least of all because the U.S. Navy, and the Kitty Hawk in particular, is the most visible symbol of America’s commitment to stability in the Pacific.
A number of my Asia-wonk acquaintances in Washington have expressed their concern that Washington is sending a signal of weakness by making no response to the Chinese provocations (sailing the fleet back through the Taiwan Straits doesn’t quite cut it)—even canceling some meetings would have been seen as something. Most concerning to them is that this seems to be part of a trend, as Washington has let go by in virtual silence the Chinese anti-satellite test in January, the surfacing of a Chinese sub near the Kitty Hawk earlier this year, and reports of Chinese hacking into Pentagon computers, all in the context of a massive Chinese military buildup this decade.
The White House may not want to roil the waters, so to speak, with China, and thinks that quiet diplomacy is the way to nudge the Chinese back to acceptable behavior. But our Asian allies see it at least partly in a different light. They worry that the U.S. is allowing China unilaterally to change the norms of accepted maritime behavior in the region, and since all of them depend on sea lanes of communication for their survival, any indication that the U.S. is losing its will is of potentially major strategic concern. It is of less interest to them whether the incidents arose from a clear Chinese policy or miscommunication between the PLA military and the political leadership in Beijing. Their focus was on our response, or lack thereof.
How many more “misunderstandings” have to occur before nations in the region consider it in their interests to begin thinking about band-wagoning with China? Push some knowledgeable people here in D.C. a bit and the response is unsettling.