In the silliness that often characterizes diplomatic discourse, Chinese vice-foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told Reuters on August 4th that China’s transformation of South China Sea shoals and reefs into armed islands “should not be discussed” at the August ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Why not? Because, said Liu, “this is a forum for promoting cooperation.” Correctly, the U.S. State Department answered that Chinese provocations should indeed be discussed. After all, how can international cooperation be furthered when China makes illegal sovereign claims over international waters that lie within the exclusive economic zones of its neighbors?
However, the Obama administration is unwilling to back up diplomacy with action. Senior U.S. naval commanders have sought permission to uphold freedom of navigation by sailing or flying close to these manmade islands that lie hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland—far from the 12 nautical miles that make up China’s legally sovereign waters. But even though China is flouting both custom and international agreement—China ratified and is currently violating the U.N. Law of the Seas Treaty—the president has refused this request.