USS Essex near East Timor

The US & The South China Sea

While Europe is battling the Eurozone crisis, Asian nations are engaged in a territorial showdown over the sovereign rights for the South China Sea. US involvement in the recent South China Sea issue is a way to reaffirm its status as a regional power, but would its involvement guarantee harmony in the region?

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USS Essex near East Timor

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The South China Sea is a marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean with small islands. It is situated between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. South China Sea has rich deposits of oil and gas reserves and fishery. The area has been a long disputed zone and it has been a source of tension between regional nations.

What is the role of the US?

Since the Second World War, the US has been a major player in Asia-Pacific politics, participating in regional forums such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), the Shangri-La Dialogue and East Asia Summit. During the Cold War US policies were driven by the Truman Doctrine to contain communism. The US concentrated its effort to establish and maintain support for states such as South Korea, Japan and ASEAN members to have stronger leverage in Asia-Pacific.

It is now the post Cold-War era but the US believes there is an outstanding issue that could thwart US influence in the region; the rise of China. China’s rise to power has alarmed other Asian nations, compelling them to turn to the US for support. China has the second largest economy in the world and throughout the history of Asia it has been the prominent leading power and it could reprise this role. As China has always been assertive in its claims for the South China Sea, the US perceives China wanting to expand its territory and influence in the region. Therefore, the US acts as an overseer to ensure Chinese territorial expansion does not happen.

A good example to show US intentions to limit Chinese expansion is supporting Taiwan. The US deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups to protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression in the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. During the Bush Administration, it perceived China as a greater threat than the previous Administration had done. Former President George W Bush announced he would “do whatever it takes” to protect Taiwan; former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice labeling China as a “strategic competitor”. Further, in 2010, the US made a US$6.4 million dollar arms deal with Taiwan.

In May 2011, the South China Sea dispute reignited when Chinese patrol boats severed the cables of a Vietnamese ship, stating that Vietnam’s operations in the area threatened Chinese sovereignty. Subsequently, the South China Sea debate was taken up at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the US urging China not to behave in a hostile manner that would threaten regional stability.

As of last year, China, Vietnam and the Philippines are the most assertive competitors for the South China Sea. Simultaneously, the US became more involved in assisting the smaller Asian states in joint naval programs. In July 2011, the US and Vietnam held joint naval exchanges which included noncombat training and China quickly questioned the nature of the activity. Further, in October 2011 the US held an assault exercise program with the Philippines navy near the Spratly Islands.

On December 2011, during the East Asia conference, the US supported ASEAN countries to argue absolute control over the disputed zone. This clearly indicates that the US intends to restrain China’s regional influence and interest. During the 2012 ASEAN Forum in Phnom Penh, the meeting has been unable to resolve the conflict. At the moment, ASEAN cannot concoct a united plan to maintain regional stability while the US is trying to implement its pivotal policy in the region. Prior to the meeting, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said China’s behaviour is a “recipe for confrontation”.

Dangerous Game?

While the US strongly justifies their involvement in Asia-Pacific as a defendant of stability, their actions towards China could spell disaster. From China’s perspective, they believe the US is instilling ASEAN nations to antagonise China’s position and role in the region. Given the past diplomatic strains that have happened between US and China, it is unlikely that China will relax its intentions in the South China Sea. The aim of the ASEAN Forum is to settle the dispute, and while it is almost impossible for this issue to be resolved in a regional discussion, US involvement is perhaps only adding fuel to the already tense moments. If the US wants to achieve its goal in regional peace, it is essential that it forms a more active working relationship with the other regional powers like China and Australia, rather than causing tension.

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