Foreign Policy Diary – Confrontation in the South China Sea

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After months of a mounting rhetorical war, the United States has conductеd a patrol through the South China Sea. On Tuesday the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen transited the area, sailing within 12 nautical miles of at least two China-made islands [technical info: entered waters near islands and reefs in the Spratlys]. A Chinese guided-missile destroyer and a naval patrol ship shadowed and gave warnings to the U.S. warship.

Then China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus, lodging “serious representations” and expressing “strong discontent” over a U.S. warship patrol. Beijing’s attitude was that the US “threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests”. In turn, Washington has demonstrated with this action that it rejects China’s claim that the built islands mark Chinese territorial waters.

Indeed, it wasn’t the first public confrontation of the US and China. Tuesday’s U.S. patrol parallels the response to China’s 2013 assertion of its expanded Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea. Washington responded by dispatching two B-52 bombers to fly through the newly claimed Chinese airspace, defying China’s right to assert sovereignty over what the United States classified as international airspace.

The official U.S. position is that its vessels would sail close to landmasses occupied by Vietnam and the Philippines as well to demonstrate support for freedom of navigation, rather than the specific targeting of China. Nonetheless, it’s clear that these so-called “freedom of navigation patrols” will continue. The US regional allies also claiming the South China Sea waters will likely welcome the actions.

Despite the rhetoric about a freedom of navigation, the US has the pragmatic interests in this region. In the ongoing US-China standoff in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, the East and South China Seas, the Strait of Malacca, the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, as well as countless peripheral lagoons and bays are crucial point of the competition. Ownership of a particular island, reef or rock, and the right to name a body of water is more than a question of sentimentality — it is the foundation of many national policy strategies. Securing the right to patrol, build bases and regulate trade through these waterways can mean access to resources critical to sustaining economic growth and political stability.

The Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and the US newly released maritime strategy de facto mean that the Washington has take a course on a long-standing countering of the China’s influence in the region. A core but often unstated component of U.S. national strategy is to maintain global superiority at sea. By controlling the seas, the United States is able to deploy military power and to control the movement goods worldwide. The China’s strategy maritime strategy aimed to defend its eastern coastal area and crucial maritime routes in the Indian Ocean challenges the American approach.

China has already stated continued incursions will lead to more concrete responses. The question now is one of next steps. It’s likely that neither side with contrary maritime interests will find the answer to avoid a crisis even if they want to do this. Furthermore, they have domestic and international reasons not to step back from their contradictory positions. In the Indo-Asia-Pacific region the US has been rapidly building political, economic and military alliances to balance the raise of the China’s economic and military power. Beijing can’t ignore this fact. Thus, both sides systematically moves to the situation making possible a confrontation. But firstly, the tensions should escalate into crisis in the South China Sea.

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