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Great Debate Update: South China Sea Is Not the Sudetenland

Earlier this month, the State Department released a statement criticizing Beijing’s recent moves in the South China Sea. In an insightful reaction to this statement, Douglass H. Paal explains why Americans would be mistaken to view America’s Asia policy as a binary choice between confrontation and appeasement of China:

Today, the South China Sea is not at the “Sudetenland” moment of the twenty-first century, which calls for standing up to aggression and the rejection of appeasement. China has not militarized its foreign policy and does not appear equipped to do so for a long time. Its neighbors are not supine, and they show on occasion, when needed, that they are able to coalesce against Chinese actions that they judge as going too far. At the same time, China and those neighbors have more going constructively in trade, investment, and other relations with each other than is at risk in this dispute.

This suggests the makings of a manageable situation, even if it remains impossible to resolve for years to come. Different Asian societies are quite accustomed to living with unresolved disputes, often for centuries.

Paal urges a more dispassionate and impartial posture in the South China Sea, lest we lose sight of the overriding goal of working with all partners, China included, to keep the area calm. He is right on the broader point, too: This Asia policy is a new kind of political and diplomatic project, managing the development of the region more than choosing between confrontation or appeasement of a single adversary.

This doesn’t mean that the State Department statement was a blunder, but it does mean that any particular statement has to be part of a larger diplomatic effort. There are a lot of hotheads in Asia. It’s our job to keep cool and retain focus on the big picture.

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  • Jim.

    The real question is, how can we keep the resources of th region open to all? It isn’t the possession of resources by one group that leads to resource conflict; it’s denial of access to those resources that leads to conflict.

    The resources of the South China Sea should be built up and brought to market by a variety of players, and all should be free to buy at that market.

    Keeping that in mind as the ultimate goal should allow buy-in from all the stakeholders here, and lead to a workable solution.

  • Eurydice

    The first article cited doesn’t make it sound as if US policy is binary – it sounds as if the US is trying to come up with a proper balance between appeasement and confrontation while, at the same time, considering the consolidating view of its fellow ASEAN members. And the final point, that the statement might not be such a strong one because it was delivered by a junior diplomat, certainly doesn’t conjure up the Sudetenland. But then, I don’t speak State Department code – or Chinese, for that matter.

  • Kris

    “South China Sea Is Not the Sudetenland”

    Of course not. It’s different. It always is. Heck, many of those involved at the time thought that the Sudetenland was not the Sudetenland.

  • bill phelps

    An USN occasional soverignity patrol should be instituted. This will keep all parties from going off hald cocked.

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