U.S. in the South China Sea
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

U.S. in the South China Sea


I’ve just finished reading a new report by the Center for a New American Security recommended to me by Mitt Romney foreign policy advisor Robert O’Brien.

It’s easy to see why the Romney team would like this – the thrust of the report, entitled “Co-operation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea,” calls for a robust U.S. effort to preserve freedom of navigation, as well as making the case for an expanded navy. Indeed, the report calls for the United States to work toward a 346 ship navy, which is bigger than the expansion to 313 that Romney has called for.

We had a lot of coverage of the South China Sea issue last summer as tensions flared again between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors over disputed territory, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. Matters certainly weren’t helped by China’s apparent insistence on using its fishermen as proxies for the country’s claims, and Vietnam has protested a number of times over Chinese boats trespassing into its territory, as well as claiming that Chinese vessels deliberately tried to cut undersea cables deployed by a ship hired by PetroVietnam.

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So where exactly does the United States come into this? Well, Vietnam in June called for the United States and others to step in and try to help find a resolution to the row (something that’s anathema to China). But the CNAS report does a good job of detailing why exactly the region is so directly important to U.S. interests.

“The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans – a mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce, accounting for $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade annually,” it notes. “It is the demographic hub of the 21st-century global economy, where 1.5 billion Chinese, nearly 600 million Southeast Asians and 1.3 billion inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent move vital resources and exchange goods across the region and around the globe. It is an area where more than a half-dozen countries have overlapping territorial claims over a seabed with proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels as well as an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.”

The report seems to suggest that relative U.S. military dominance in the region is bound to decline, especially as China upgrades its capabilities, but it adds that this doesn’t mean that the United States can’t protect maritime trade through free sea lines of communication, especially through co-operation with other powers in the region.

“Because the United States needs to maintain cooperation with China, America’s individual strategic partnerships in Southeast Asia are likely to be the essential building blocks of a latent regional alliance that would only coalesce in the event of a clear and present danger,” it suggests. “Strategic partnerships based on strong common interests (in effect, tacit alliances) can be stronger than formal alliances and are less likely to provoke a hostile Chinese response (as opposed to harsh rhetoric) that would polarize the region. This last point is especially valid if the region continues to build understanding and practical cooperation with China.”

The whole report is well worth reading for anyone looking to understand not just the military challenges the United States faces in the region, but also the diplomatic balancing act the U.S. must undertake. And I should add that although the report calls for a robust U.S. military presence in the region, it’s far from a call to arms. China Power blogger M. Taylor Fravel – far from a war monger or China basher – has contributed a chapter that opens with a convincing explanation of why war in the region is by no means inevitable. 

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