Instead of becoming more deeply entangled in the South China Sea quarrel, the United States needs to take a step back. It is one thing to make clear to Beijing that Washington will never countenance China transforming 80 percent of that area into Chinese territorial waters. It is quite another matter to implicitly back rival claimants and become a military participant in the underlying feuds. Yet the United States has already done the former and seems poised to do the latter. Such a course is likely to exacerbate an already dangerous security environment, and perhaps even more worrisome, create the prospect of a direct military confrontation between the United States and China. Such an outcome would benefit no one.
Now is the time for flexible, creative diplomacy focused on protecting America’s core maritime interests, not the territorial ambitions of favored East Asian countries. It might even be appropriate at this point to propose a compromise that would recognize a more modest Chinese claim while achieving an explicit agreement among all relevant parties that the rest of the South China Sea will forever remain international waters. While there is no guarantee that such a diplomatic initiative would succeed (especially in the short term), it is a far better move than exacerbating an already dangerous situation with a provocative U.S. military presence.