The South China Sea: Assessing U.S. Policy and Options For the Future
The South China Sea tensions stem from the seemingly intractable overlapping sovereignty claims to land features and associated water entitlements in the South China Sea. These problems are not new; as the China Sea disputes was made in 1995. Today’s policy is virtually identical. What is different is that after almost a decade and a half of relative tranquility, the South China Sea has emerged as a cockpit of contention that raises the instability in Southeast Asia. The United States could become directly involved, because the Philippines, one of the contending claimants to land features in the South China Sea, is a U.S. treaty ally. The South China Sea disputes involve the interests of the United States, particularly with regard to freedom of navigation, international norms and law, relations with important partners and allies, and the expectation of the peaceful resolution of disputes. China’s rising power and capabilities make PRC actions more consequential and unsettling than those of others, so they deserve particular attention but need to be evaluated in the broader context of the motives and actions of others as well. American policies have contributed mightily to enabling Asia to become an engine of both global and American growth for the last 35 years. The American security presence and associated actions have reduced the period, facilitating Asia’s economic emergence. Unfortunately, maritime territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea increasingly threaten these critical U.S. interests. This regional situation is unfolding in the larger context of the rise of China and its growing activism regarding regional and global issues and institutions, including more vigorously asserting While expansion of China’s interests it is inevitably unsettling to many Americans and Asians, particularly when it involves employment of military and quasi-military assets. China’s greater global activism also makes more salient the reality that almost all of the core challenges of this era—such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cyber security, opposition to trade and investment liberalization, climate change, and epidemics—are more manageable when the United States and China can cooperate or act along parallel lines and far less tractable when the two countries see their interests as at cross purposes. The growing U.S.-China distrust over both countries’ respective positions in East China Sea and the South China Sea risks creating an impact on overall U.S.-China relations that can have merits of the disputes themselves. Wrongly, Beijing is convinced that the underlying U.S. strategy to encourage others, especially Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, to push the envelope in the hopes the Chinese responses will lead those countries—and ASEAN—to become more united and dependent on the United States. At the same time, China’s increasingly bullying approach to its maritime territorial claims has increased the growing ranks and China’s “peaceful rise” is a mirage and that intense competition, if not outright While the East and South China Sea disputes share certain similarities, they are quite different in important respects. The East China Sea territorial dispute involves only two claimants, China and Japan, revolves primarily around one small set of uninhabited islands claimed by both, and is closely intertwined with interpretation of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty. The South China Sea disputes concern a vast area of ocean, inhabited and uninhabited islands, more complex rivalries and claims to land and resources, a more pronounced challenge to international law, and a greater imbalance in power among the claimants. This article addresses only the South China Sea disputes. The South China Sea disputes pit the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan (many of which have maritime territorial claims that also overlap with each other)—and involve: Disputes over the interpretation and applicability of international law, notably the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And they involve the interests of the United States, particularly with regard to freedom of navigation, international norms and law, relations with important partners and allies, and the expectation of the peaceful resolution of disputes.