In a recent piece for China US Focus, Zhai Kun, director of the Institute of World Political Studies at CICIR, described the South China Sea as “a chessboard of international politics.”
Noting the sea’s fluctuating role in relations between China and its neighbours, Zhai then claimed that the current focus on the South China Sea (SCS) followed a July 2010 speech by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she asserted that it was a US “national interest.”
At that moment, Zhai says, it became a key stage for Sino-US competition and the rivalry between the various claimant states to the disputed Paracel and Spratly island chains was renewed. This chimes with a recent Xinhua editorial that blamed the US pivot for “emboldening” countries such as Vietnam and Philippines to more forcefully assert their claims to “sovereign Chinese territory.”
These are interesting assertions, but they don’t stand up to much scrutiny. The most recent changes in the SCS have occurred independent of U.S. actions; in fact it is more persuasive to argue that U.S. inaction – through its refusal to move away from its longstanding impartiality regarding territorial disputes – has emboldened Beijing to assert its claims more forcefully than it has for years.