This is not an immovable object and an unstoppable force. The game is asymmetric – as indeed are China’s military capabilities. (It cannot match US aircraft carriers but it may be able to sink them with missiles.) To preserve the status quo, the US needs to prevent every one of China’s moves, something it has been unable to do. China needs merely to pick a few small battles that it knows the US has no wish to fight. An air defence identification zone here. An oil rig there. Of course, Mr Obama could draw a red line. But, as he found out in Syria, red lines can be tricky.
Bit by bit, then, Beijing is creating new facts on the ground, or rather in the sea and in the air. With each new incident, it is throwing down the gauntlet. Is it worth fighting for a Vietnamese fishing boat? Thought not. How about a submerged Philippine reef? An uninhabited island? In the short term, such tactics may well prod neighbours to stick together or cling ever closer to US skirts. But if China is changing regional perceptions, and realities, that may not matter. There is talk, for example, of a more united stance by members of the Association of South East Asian Nations. For now it is just that. Talk. Asean is divided between countries that have disputes with China – the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam among them – and ones that do not, including Thailand and Cambodia. Concerted action looks a long way off.