The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Standoff in the South China Sea

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.

Published on April 12, 2012 5:48 pm
  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    It is best to go into negotiations from a position of strength. It is therefore best for the US to hang back and let the greedy and grasping Chinese over reach, so that their neighbors all have blood in their eye. Also, the Chinese are going into an economic crash, and time is on the American side as the longer we wait the weaker economically China will become, and with falling incomes in China increased social unrest will turn China’s focus inward. I see nothing to be gained by starting up negotiations at this time, and everything to be gained by waiting.

  • eon

    The People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, may indeed “surpass the capabilities” of most of its neighbors, but with the exception of one aircraft carrier of dubious actual usefulness (launching Su-27s from a ski-jump makes the Doolittle Raid launch look low-risk by comparison) and inadequate escorts, and one or two boomers that may or may not actually be operational (one in the water, the other as yet never officially commissioned), it’s a littoral warfare force, pure and simple.

    While probably adequate for controlling the waters within 100 km of the China coast, it isn’t even capable of amphibious operations against Taiwan, let alone force projection. Which China would need to make an issue of such things as the Spratley Islands, and their oil reserves, which is their real reason for trying to play “Cod War” with the Philippine Navy.

    Never mind what the U.S. Navy might do to them if asked by our friends in the area. They would be wise to worry about the Royal Australian Navy, The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (whose Kongo-class missile cruisers are basically second-flight Arleigh Burkes,some of the most effective surface combatants in the water today)- and for that matter, the Taiwanese Navy, which is about on a par with the JMSDF.

    Even a shark knows better than to tangle with a school of barracuda.

    cheers

    eon

  • Anthony

    “The best case scenario, and the goal toward which Washington should be working, is an agreement on economic exploitation of and free navigation in the South China Sea.” The last three words say it all (South China Sea) and water makes offshore balancing difficult WRM. But, you’re correct our foreign policy must be cognizant of multiple countries using our alliance (shield) to antagonize China.

  • ricky svenson

    i m a investment banker & whenever we see risk we hedge our risks now in current case scenario, although i m no expert(we have to be aware of every thing & have opinions since being inv banker have to be aware of global happening & that also pertaining to china) well in ideal case scenario since USA is too over stretched the south china corridor can be protected by Japan / S. Korea Jointly since China alone will have problem facing these 2 Asian powers even militarily & further can take assistance from India in the region. Well, India is a very sound hedge against breast thumping China.