The standoff between a Filipino warship and two Chinese surveillance vessels began over disputed fishing rights in a part of the South China Sea, where both countries claim sovereignty, but much more than seafood is at stake for the PRC. China wants to dominate the territory, but strong-arming its smaller neighbors drives them straight toward Uncle Sam.
China’s navy easily surpasses the capabilities of countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, or Indonesia, but almost all of China’s neighbors have security agreements with the United States, which include joint military exercises and hosting U.S. troops and equipment. Beijing doesn’t want its antagonism to inadvertently strengthen these relationships; at the same time, it doesn’t enjoy playing into Washington’s agenda by compromising its interests to peacefully resolve territorial disputes in multilateral forums.
But China isn’t the only country with a strategic dilemma in the region. Washington doesn’t want countries like the Philippines to lose faith in their American ally—but it also doesn’t want to be dragged into an endless series of disputes with China. It’s in the interest of China’s neighbors to use their Washington connection as a way to push Beijing, but Washington’s goal is to reduce tension in the South China Sea, not to raise it.
The best case scenario, and the goal toward which Washington should be working, is an agreement on the economic exploitation of and free navigation in the South China Sea. That will take some diplomatic heavy lifting, but the stepped up U.S. presence in the region puts the quest for a South China Sea agreement high up on America’s diplomatic to-do list.