Avoid Confrontation in the South China Sea

The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China is "militarizing the South China Sea." Coming just after the Pentagon learned that the Peoples Republic has deployed antiaircraft missiles to the disputed Paracel islands, the accusation is but the latest development in a crisis that has been unfolding over the past several years.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has few options to counter Chinese moves in the region. It must not provoke a military confrontation with Beijing. A large buildup of U.S. forces would only encourage Chinese counter measures and could lead to an expensive and futile arms race.

China has long claimed most of the South China Sea as its territorial waters, defying both international law and the claims of other littoral countries. It has clashed with Vietnam over the Paracel and Spratly Islands and had diplomatic rows with the Philippines and Malaysia. The value of the waters as a fishery and the prospect of gas and oil reserves beneath the seabed have made the dispute more important.

That an emerging super-power would assert control over its near abroad should come as no surprise. The U.S. did precisely the same thing in the Caribbean a century ago. After the Panama Canal opened in 1914, Washington viewed the Sea as an American lake. During the interwar period, the Marines intervened in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

After WWII, the U.S. supported a coup to oust the President of Guatemala, forced the Soviet Union to remove its missiles from Cuba, and backed the Salvadoran government against Communist insurgents. This history makes it difficult for Washington to be too critical of Beijing's assertiveness in the South China Sea, no matter how objectionable such action may be.

How then should the U.S. respond? The much-vaunted "re balancing" of U.S. forces to Asia has been limited by the conflict in the Middle East and the resurgence of Russia. Deploying more naval and air assets to the region would, in any case, have limited effect. The U.S. will not go to war over the South China Sea, and China knows it. That realization reduces the credibility of any American military moves.

Beijing is developing anti-ship missile with the American Navy in mind. Such a weapon could neutralize U.S. carrier battle groups. Trying to outmatch China in its own backyard will not work. Attempting to do so would merely add to rising defense costs.

The U.S. does, of course, need to reassure its allies that it will protect them against direct aggression. That reassurance requires some bolstering of its forces in the region, but Washington should tread lightly. De-escalation coupled with joint diplomatic efforts by littoral nations with American support might be the wisest course of action.