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Keeping the South China Sea in perspective

2 Sep 2014

Outlines the competing interests behind tensions in the South China Sea and makes policy recommendations for the United States.

Executive summary

The South China Sea disputes involve the interests of the United States, particularly with regard to freedom of navigation, international norms and law, relations with important partners and allies, and the expectation of the peaceful resolution of disputes. China’s rising power and capabilities make PRC actions more consequential and unsettling than those of others, so they deserve particular attention but need to be evaluated in the broader context of the motives and actions of others as well.

American policymakers should consider the South China Sea in terms of how most effectively to address the problems so as to achieve the goals of diminishing tensions, preventing the use of military force by all parties, protecting the lawful rights of the international community, encouraging steps to reconcile the various claimants, and maintaining good relations and credibility with all the parties. This mix of objectives will require a nuanced array of policies that, taken together, move a difficult and increasingly dangerous situation toward greater stability. The United States should not regard the South China Sea disputes as signaling an incipient cold war with China or as the central strategic issue in U.S.-China relations. Such an approach is likely to lead to an outcome in which the United States does not achieve its objectives but instead greatly intensifies U.S.-China tensions and distrust of each other’s strategic intentions and at the same time increases the chances of other claimants acting imprudently.

Our recommendations seek to strike a balance among competing interests. They are designed to diminish the momentum toward heightened tensions between the United States and China and among claimants in the South China Sea; to protect American interests on maritime issues where they are engaged; to provide confidence to regional actors that the U.S. security presence is enduring; and to avoid putting U.S. credibility at stake in cases where the United States is unlikely to act militarily to demonstrate it. They also aim to protect the broad interests of the United States in its relationship with China from becoming hostage to matters that it cannot control.

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