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As Beijing builds islands, Biden WH must assert itself

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As Beijing builds islands, Biden WH must assert itself

As the Biden administration strives to reinforce ties with key Asian allies from India to Japan, tensions in the South China Sea region are again on the rise. 

Both the Philippines and Vietnam have expressed concern as hundreds of Chinese fishing boats congregate near Whitsun Reef in the Spratly islands. China has used such fishing fleets in the past to help seize control of other disputed islands and otherwise press its claims. Many of these fishing boats do double duty as part of China’s extensive maritime militia in a new expression of “people’s war at sea,” especially in the South China Sea. 

Beijing has increasingly asserted its sovereignty claims over the past decade. In 2009, several US ships were harassed by Chinese fishing boats trying to drive off the American presence. These incidents at sea have steadily escalated, as US Navy ships sailing in the South China Sea have repeatedly had near-collisions with Chinese surface combatants, including the USS Cowpens in 2013 and the USS Decatur in 2018. 

Meanwhile, China has built artificial islands atop several of the reefs that it controls, wreaking environmental havoc in the process. These new islands total some 3,200 acres, dwarfing all other land reclamation in the area by orders of magnitude. Three of these new islands now boast 10,000-foot runways, sufficient to support large airliners — or high performance combat aircraft. Artillery and missile emplacements have been identified on them. 

From Beijing’s perspective, all of this is simply a matter of defending Chinese territorial sovereignty. After all, Chinese fishermen have been plying these waters for thousands of years. And the “Nine Dash Line” that forms the basis for China’s claim to these waters was imposed by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists in the 1940s, before the People’s Republic of China was even established. The Chinese describe their maritime sovereignty claims as defending “blue soil,” implying that they would defend these claims much like they would defend sovereignty on land — with force if necessary. 

But the PRC’s claims are easily the most expansive. While other nations claim, per the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a 200-mile “exclusive economic zone” extending from their shores, China’s “Nine Dash Line” would give Beijing control over waters far more distant. 

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, the carotid artery of global trade, with some $5 trillion worth of shipping and goods passing through. The impact of even a week’s delay in shipping has been seen with the Suez Canal blockage; the impact of interference with the South China Sea would be at least as bad. 

Furthermore, Beijing interprets the “Nine Dash Line” as extending to within a few miles of the coasts of the Philippines and Vietnam. These nations would be denied even the right to a 12-mile stretch of territorial waters if China had its way. In 2015, the Philippines took the Chinese to international court, asking the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) headquartered in The Hague to review the competing claims. The PCA concluded that China’s claims were invalid. Beijing has ignored the ruling. 

As China has demonstrated in its behavior toward Hong Kong, it has little regard for treaties when it comes to issues of national sovereignty. It undoubtedly sees the South China Sea as just such an issue, having described it as a “core interest,” a term that is liberally applied to Taiwan and Xinjiang. 

For President Biden, the South China Sea is a “known known.” The Chinese outmaneuvered the Obama administration when it came to Scarborough Shoal, also in the South China Sea, when they got the White House to push the Philippines to withdraw from the reef while remaining there themselves. The Obama administration also halted Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea for three years, while China built its islands. 

Undoubtedly, the Chinese would love to see a replay of those policies, especially in exchange for vague promises on climate change. Given the Biden administration’s insistence on the centrality of climate change, Beijing may well believe that this White House will make quiet concessions on the South China Sea, in exchange for renewed promises of eventual cutbacks in Chinese greenhouse gas emissions. (Someone might want to remind climate czar John Kerry that in 2020 China brought on line more coal-fired electricity than three times the rest of the world combined.) 

Former President Donald Trump’s administration held regular Freedom of Navigation Operations, one every other month or so, as a clear signal of American interest in the region. Biden should continue the practice. 

Lenin famously said, “You probe with bayonets. If you find mush, you proceed. If you find steel, you withdraw.” 

In Anchorage, China’s senior diplomats made clear that they could buffalo their counterparts, disregarding agreed-upon time limits, and chastising America for not treating their “guests” with more respect even while acting in an insulting manner. 

The South China Sea is likely to be one of the areas where Beijing probes to see whether the US is mush or steel. 

Dean Cheng is a Senior Research Fellow in the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation. 

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Opinion

COVID can’t unfairly let pols treat believers like second-class citizens

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COVID can’t unfairly let pols treat believers like second-class citizens

When Christians met in each other’s homes for prayer or Bible study, they had to be careful. Such gatherings were illegal, and the organizers never knew who might inform the authorities.

Although that sounds like a scene from the Soviet Union, it in fact describes the situation in California under COVID-19 regulations that the Supreme Court blocked last Friday. By issuing an injunction against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s restrictions, the Supremes reaffirmed that politicians must comply with the Constitution when they decide how to deal with a pandemic.

The main rule at issue in this case limited at-home religious gatherings, whether inside or outside, to people from no more than three households. If two people from different households joined a host for a prayer meeting or Bible study session, for example, no one else was allowed to come.

As the petitioners noted, that limit “does not permit an individual to gather with others in her own backyard to study the Bible, pray or worship with members of more than two other households, all of which are common (and deeply important) practices of millions of contemporary Christians in the United States.” Meanwhile, California was allowing much larger groups to gather in other settings: inside stores, barbershops, nail salons, tattoo parlors, movie studios and (in some counties) restaurants, for example — or outdoors at restaurants, wineries, gyms, movie theaters, zoos, museums, sporting events, concerts, political demonstrations, weddings and funerals.

The upshot was that Californians could “sit for a haircut with 10 other people in a barbershop, eat in a half-full restaurant (with members of 20 different families) or ride with 15 other people on a city bus.” But they were not allowed to “host three people from different households for a Bible study indoors or in their backyards.”

Justice Elena Kagan, who objected to the Supreme Court’s injunction in a dissent joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, argued that the Golden State’s regulations did not implicate the First Amendment to the US Constitution, because they were neutral and generally applicable. The state “has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike,” she noted.

The petitioners argued that Newsom’s rules nevertheless amounted to “a subtle but unmistakable religious gerrymander.” Five justices were inclined to agree, concluding that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail in their claim that the restrictions on private religious meetings violated the First Amendment.

This isn’t the first time that the high court has called attention to the impact of COVID-19 control measures on religious freedom. It blocked enforcement of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s onerous restrictions on houses of worship in New York last November, vacated a decision upholding Colorado’s limits on religious services in December and reached similar conclusions in four cases involving state and local regulations in California two months later.

By now, the court said, it should be clear that public-health regulations are subject to strict scrutiny “whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise,” and that the relevant consideration is “the risks various activities pose, not the reasons why people gather.” To pass strict scrutiny, a state has to “show that measures less restrictive of the First Amendment activity” — such as face masks, physical distancing and more generous group limits — “could not address its interest in reducing the spread of COVID.”

Kagan is certainly right, based on the court’s pre-pandemic precedents, that disease-control measures can be constitutional even if they incidentally impinge on religious freedom. But Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor always seem willing to accept politicians’ public-health judgments, even when they are scientifically dubious, change in the midst of litigation or result in policies that privilege politically influential industries or explicitly treat religious gatherings as a disfavored category.

At this point, it isn’t clear that Kagan and her allies on the high court can imagine any disease-control policy that would violate the Free Exercise Clause, provided it was presented as necessary for the protection of public health, as such policies always are.

Twitter: @JacobSullum

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The mindless mask regime might be here to stay, unless YOU resist it

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The mindless mask regime might be here to stay, unless YOU resist it

The masks might be forever. We have to come to terms with the fact that a large chunk of the US population will be wearing masks in public for years, maybe even decades to come.

Even if we unquestionably achieve herd immunity, even if 100 percent of the population is vaccinated, even if COVID cases nationwide drop to zero and even if the coronavirus by some miracle learns to communicate in a human language and tells us, forthrightly, “Well, you beat me,” some Americans, especially those in blue metropolises, will continue to cover their faces — and shame you for not going along.

It’s a massively depressing thought.

For more than a year, public-health authorities have urged us to put up with temporary inconveniences, always with the soothing promise that it will be only a little while longer. But recently, NPR cheerfully reported about the growing number of people who see masks as a source of Permanent and Absolute Safety.

Flu and other respiratory illnesses are down this year owing to our ubiquitous face coverings, our state-run news agency tells us, so maybe we should just keep wearing them. Meanwhile, the rapper Will.i.am and Honeywell have introduced a super-duper smart mask that runs $300. The “Xupermask” allows the wearer to chat on the phone or listen to some dulcet music while signaling her virtue.

None of this should give anyone the slightest bit of confidence that the days of ubiquitous mask wearing will soon be behind us.

Yes, masks reduce the transmission of airborne illnesses. You know what else reduces transmission? Staying in a protective plastic bubble in your living room and never venturing into the dirty, filthy, infectious outdoors. And even if it makes sense to wear a mask in tight indoor quarters, it is utterly unscientific and, yes, moronic to wear them outside, and yet blue-state denizens insist.

Sigh. The mask fanatics — some of whom hold advanced degrees that make them no wiser as human beings — can’t be reasoned with.

The awkward moments with double-masked parents at kids’ birthday parties, the ridiculous restaurant rituals, the seething public glares from masked to maskless on our streets — all will continue. They will say it’s but a small price to pay for Health Most Holy and Sacred Safety. Huge swaths of Americans will literally be lost to our sight and recognition.

It’s a sinister phenomenon that runs radically counter to our cultural history.

Many cultures embrace face covering. Western culture, however, isn’t among them. Western culture revels in the human face and form. That is why “Westernization” is so often associated with immodesty in the East (often unfairly, for celebrating the face needn’t entail baring the backside or plunging décolletage).

A future in which millions hide behind protective masks as they wander around is a steep departure from the Western ideal, rooted in both the Greco-Roman celebration of the human form and the Genesis teaching that God formed man and woman in his image.

The typical conservative reaction — to blame government — doesn’t quite apply here. It’s mainly cultural forces that promote masking in needless places. And private actors have lined up eagerly, with Big Tech actively suppressing science that questions the efficacy of mask-wearing.

Yet we still can resist the phenomenon. We can fight against this faceless future with our own refusals. We can proudly display our lipstick, smile at a passerby and even be understood clearly when we speak. Put simply, we can go back to a normal past, when people’s faces brightened our day instead of terrifying us.

Of course, there is some marginal safety upside to wearing a mask; there always has been. But in the more sensible recent past, most people realized that such small protection wasn’t worth hiding our faces night and day.

We should treat with compassion our fellow citizens who sheepishly embrace the forever-mask regime — but not too much compassion. Those of us who value things like basic human interaction shouldn’t feel shy about mocking those who cling to the facial security blankets or who don high-tech, celebrity-endorsed visage eviscerators. It’s OK to acknowledge that a world without faces isn’t one we want to inhabit.

So let’s bare our faces to the nice, fresh air, pucker and smirk at every available opportunity. Don’t be daunted by the masked masses. Plenty of us want to see your face.

Twitter: @BlueBoxDave

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Post-Wright mayhem helps no one — yet cynical pols fan the flames anyway

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Post-Wright mayhem helps no one — yet cynical pols fan the flames anyway

Outrage at the death of Daunte Wright is warranted, but rioting and looting only make everything worse — as do fan-the-flames comments from cynical politicians.

Video footage strongly suggests the shooting was accidental: The Brooklyn Center officer, Kim Potter (who stepped down Tuesday “in the best interest of the community”), thought she was firing her Taser instead of her gun as Wright resisted arrest.

It’s all horrible: Wright was just 20. Yet the mayhem that followed was terrible, too. Within hours, hundreds of “protesters” gathered. Some threw bricks and cans at cops, jumped on their vehicles and even “shot up” a police station, as the chaos spread to Minneapolis and beyond. The ensuing looting rampage all but destroyed several businesses, including a Foot Locker, a T-Mobile and a men’s clothing store.

This isn’t protest, it’s jumping on an excuse to run amok. (Same in Portland, where the folks who’ve been doing rolling riots for months now used the excuse to shoot fireworks and other objects at cops, smash windows and try to set a dumpster on fire.)

This, when local authorities are rushing to do the right thing: conduct a full investigation, figure out what went wrong and take steps to prevent a recurrence. Even if Potter were a racist murderer — and there’s zero sign of that — burning everything down only hurts the community.

Yet politicians holding top jobs couldn’t resist fueling the fire. As news of the shooting broke, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz immediately tweeted about “another life of a Black man taken by law enforcement.” New York’s scandal-swamped Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted, “We cannot stand by and watch as a flawed system again and again devalues the lives of Black men & women” — essentially egging on the violence.

Most cynical were “Squad” members Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.): Wright’s death “wasn’t an accident” but “government-funded murder,” Tlaib insisted. “From slave patrols to traffic stops,” Pressley said.

Their prescription? “No more policing, incarceration and militarization,” declared Tlaib. Lunacy: Minority communities resent crime as much as any other, if not more so. In a Gallup survey last year, more than 80 percent of blacks and Hispanics nationwide said they want at least as much, or even more, policing in their neighborhoods. So why does the Squad want to deny them the protection they seek — and need?

Because their shtick is to play to radicals (mostly white ones) nationwide. Riots and looting that set back minority neighborhoods are just the necessary price for forwarding . . . their own personal ambitions.

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