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John Bolton Looks to Roil the South China Sea

Bush's former UN ambassador begs CPAC to escalate military tensions with the PRC.

Former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton administered a heavy dose of alarmism to CPAC during his speech on Thursday morning.

Now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Bolton primarily used the platform to bash Hillary Clinton, even though there were presumably no Clinton supporters in the audience to be persuaded. He framed his argument by systematically critiquing her foreign policy, but the statements he made on the South China Sea bordered on fear mongering.

The former ambassador began by referencing the islands that China is building in the South China Sea. Although Bolton asserted that the Chinese were “putting naval and air bases on top of those islands”, these so-called bases constitute little more than small airstrips, aircraft shelters, and radar systems, all defended by surface-to-air missiles. These are not bases akin to the size and scope of a U.S. military base nor do they possess the capabilities of a single U.S. aircraft carrier. These islands, as they stand today, pose no operational threat to current American activities in the South China Sea.

But what is China using these outposts for? Amb. Bolton said, “They’re intimidating their neighbors in Southeast Asia. They’re pressing the free government of Taiwan. … China will have its hands around the throats of those three critical allies and economies [Japan, South Korea, Taiwan].” It’s true that tensions are high in this region, but what does Bolton suggest to ease the strain? Certainly not diplomacy. No, Bolton favors action:

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Bolton suggested that the U.S. should play the ‘Taiwan card.’ This strategy boils down to the U.S. drastically increasing ties with Taiwan, culminating in full diplomatic recognition in order to “compel Beijing’s attention.” This course of action is risky at best and would likely increase cross-strait tensions, ultimately making it harder to resolve the territorial disputes.

Perhaps there is another way to communicate with China. Bolton, however, chastised the Obama administration for trying to resolve disputes through diplomatic channels: “Her [Clinton’s] policy is negotiation with China. That’s like saying our policy is prayer.” Why is diplomacy with an increasingly powerful country seen as weak?

Bolton seems to want to stir up trouble in the South China Sea, but it’s not clear why he thinks this would benefit America. The islands that he is so concerned about pose no threat to current U.S. operations in the region. He argues that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan feel threatened by China’s actions. So then, these countries should take steps to alleviate the problem. A rapid escalation of American involvement in the disputes would antagonize China and ensure retaliation against all parties involved.

Republican hawks like Bolton tell Americans that there is only one way forward on foreign policy—military power. Conservatives are only offered the option of forward engagement, but viable alternatives exist. If this election cycle has shown anything, it is that people are sick of the policies that got the United States entangled in the Middle East, and strongly want to avoid another conflict large enough to consume an entire region.

Unfortunately, it looks like we’re headed in that direction anyway.

Caroline Dorminey is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.