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South China Sea: Lessons From History

The South China Sea dispute continues to rage on with no end in sight, and the questions of who is most likely to win control over the region and how the conflict is to be resolved remain unanswered.

South China Sea

The U.S. Dilemma: To Act Or Not To Act

The South China Sea conflict has put the United States in an uncomfortable position, despite the country not being a claimant in the row, owing to its diplomatic and strategic alliances with countries involved in the dispute.

On the one hand, Washington must reassure its allies that it continues to stand behind them and will not forsake them or their interests during their time of need.

And yet, on the other hand, Washington is not keen to antagonize Beijing by taking military action in the region or issuing China an official warning on the matter. While the U.S. has been in talks with China over various aspects of the South China Sea issue, most notably Beijing’s decisions to build artificial islands in the sea to bolster its territorial claims, the Obama administration is yet to make a decisive decision regarding active action in the South China Sea. Until then, the government continues to explore options for diplomatic and political solutions instead.

There is also the question of the U.S. not wanting China to establish a hegemonic position in the South China Sea because of the various security and strategic difficulties that the development would pose. Security in the Asia-Pacific region is at the forefront of debates on international order and China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea poses a direct challenge to Washington’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy.

The U.S. must take into consideration the implications of not acting; given its position as a global leader and its alliances with other claimants in the South China Sea issue, the U.S. runs a risk by choosing to counsel but not act: critics of the current approach have warned that audiences both locally and at the global level may lose faith in the administration’s ability to govern if it continues to appease Beijing.

The U.S. Position Thus Far

Washington’s choices in the South China Sea issue thus far seem to be following a pattern similar to those of the United Kingdom in the Mediterranean during the late 1890s and the early years of 1900s. At the time, the British Royal Navy squadrons were moved from East Asia and the Caribbean in order to deal with the growing threat from the newly reformed alliance between France and Russia and also to offset Germany’s growing maritime power. Britain’s decision at the time was inspired by an overarching desire to maintain a power balance in the waters around Europe and keep the same in Britain’s favor. The U.S. is interested in maintaining its footing in the Asia-Pacific and Washington’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ is may be understood as a modernized iteration of Britain’s early maritime containment efforts.

Instead of challenging China openly on the South China Sea issue, the U.S. seems to be working on curbing China’s influence in the region. By deploying a powerful fleet in the South China Sea and expanding its naval flotilla in the Western Pacific, the U.S. government is making its presence felt in the region without making an overt grab for power. Since the United States is not technically a claimant to the South China Sea and its interests in the region are purely out of concerns regarding regional security and international geopolitics and its duty to its allies, Washington is following a more prudent path to exerting its will in the region.

U.S. government officials have undoubtedly realized the limited influence the U.S. wields over the region vis-à-vis China: China has the advantage in terms of geographical distance. Also, given that the U.S. is not a claimant in the territorial dispute, it cannot rightfully make demands of China or any of the other states involved. As such, the U.S. would be well advised to steer clear of making short-term decisions and focus...