However, the Trolls did not exhibit patience, caution, and canniness. No. They have gone ahead and gotten pushy. They have opted for a "hard power," military approach. Coercion of a naked, direct nature has been the tone. This has produced results which are both pleasing and drearily predictable.
The countries of the ASEAN region have flocked to the US as the only possible guarantor of regional stability. The only credible deterrent to overweening Chinese ambitions and very disturbing rattling of sabers.
This dynamic is, as the Geek noted above, drearily predictable. Fifteen years ago while lecturing at a senior US military school, the Geek opined that the US would, for example, hold joint exercises with Vietnam in not much more than a decade. When the audience was finished scoffing, the Geek offered as justification, "Beijing will make sure that happens. Long term, the Chinese will flex muscles over the South China Sea; the underwater oil deposits if nothing else will demand it."
The US and Vietnam are currently engaging in joint naval exercises with the destroyer USS John McCain making a port call as jets from the USS George Washington fly over Vietnamese territorial waters. The joint exercise has come immediately after the US did the same with South Korea to the intense annoyance of the Trolls.
Beijing went so far as to warn the US Navy to stay out of the Yellow Sea. The Trolls on grounds which are shakier than Obama's approval rating have claimed the Yellow Sea to be, in essence, their territorial water. This assertion is on a level with that of Libya regarding the Gulf of Sidra and we know how the Reagan administration dealt with that bit of cheek.
No one would expect the current adrift-in-the-Oval guy to do the same regarding the Chinese claim and warning, but as to the rest of the emerging diplomatic picture in Southeast Asia, it is to be hoped that his administration continues the policy announced in Hanoi by Secretary of State Clinton and underscored by the current series of joint naval exercises. The ASEAN states see the US as a Great Power. Further, they unanimously view the US as a beneficent one and China as malevolent.
The attitude of the several states of Southeast Asia, particularly those with competing claims about sovereignty over the South China Sea, demands the US act like the Great Power it is and serve as both a deterrent and mediator. This dynamic is a classic example of the relation between Great Powers and those of lesser rank.
Admittedly, the stance taken by the several states of the region serves to define their relations with the US as "special," and such bilateral alliances do not mesh with the Obama view of all states are created equal in their relations with the US. Even the assemblage of the several states under the ASEAN rubric does not meet the Obama test of "international institutions."
It will be tempting in the months to come as the Trolls become even more bumptious regarding their presumed "rights" in the South China Sea or their view that the areas of Southeast Asia and the far western Pacific constitute a Chinese sphere of influence for the US or at least its president to do a 180, to cut and run, to high tail it out of the game. The Trolls will show an increasingly uncooperative attitude regarding Iran. They will huff and puff mightily over just how much of Uncle Sam's IOU's they possess. They will show a pronounced unwillingness to loan the administration more.
In short, Beijing will become ever more unpleasant in all possible respects. Unless, of course, the US shows a more "flexible" attitude regarding the South China Sea and Southeast Asia in general. Given the budgetary constraints and the ever greater need to fund the deficit, there will be both impetus and excuse for backing away from the muscular posture assumed by Ms Clinton at Hanoi.
Coupled with Mr Obama's belief in the efficacy of the UN as well as his still extant faith in his own ability as a diplomat, a sort of Bismark, Talleyrand, and Metternich rolled up in one smiley package, the financial realities and Chinese firmness could well cause the current administration to resign American Great Power status. Such a move would constitute a surrender of influence and global authority akin to suicide upon the US.
The announcement by Secretary Clinton of US policy regarding the South China Sea and the demonstration of both will and capacity contained in the current series of naval exercises constitute the only diplomatic success in the Obama administration to date. The reason it has been a success is simple. The US has acted as a Great Power in not only pursuing its own long standing policies and national interests but doing so in conjunction with and response to the needs and fears of lesser powers under threat.
The Clinton Declaration came as a shock to the Trolls. It was probably just as shocking in chanceries around the world. It was a surprise to say the least to most American observers of the shambles which has passed for foreign policy these past months.
Perhaps it even came as a surprise to President Obama whose preternatural calm masks a capacity for a total lack of engagement. One can only hope he finds the Clinton Declaration and its aftermath to be a good surprise and resolve to support it--even as the Trolls turn up the heat both rhetorical and financial.
It's time to remind the Trolls of one of the best of the ancient Chinese toasts (and curses.) "May you live in interesting times."