South China Sea: It’s About More Than Rocks


Security and prosperity have largely prevailed in the Asia-Pacific for the better part of the last seven decades. Today, however, the region is faced with the first major challenge to the very order that led to a secure and growing Asia. On the one hand, the United States is committed to preserving a long-standing alliance system, access to the air and maritime commons, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. One the other, China seeks to impose a new system that better supports its own view of China’s cultural and historical significance in the region.

Rather than a U.S.-led model, China is proposing a Sino-centric model where plurality is set to face raw power for sway over the region. While both the U.S. and China will probably weather the political, economic, and military storm that is brewing, it is less certain how the other countries in the region will fare.

In the years since the American alliance system was fashioned, after World War II, the U.S. has fought two wars in Asia to stop the spread of communism: Korea and Vietnam. While some argue that the Korean War was, at best, a draw and Vietnam was an outright failure it is important to look at how both countries are doing today.

The Republic of Korea is a model for economic and political development. It has a vibrant democracy and the thirteenth largest economy in the world. Vietnam is rapidly liberalizing its economic system as it seeks to experience the rapid growth of the Asian Tigers. Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific, economies are growing, and the middle class is rising. The point of these examples is that the U.S. alliance system supports and reinforces the rights and uses of the air and maritime commons that supports such growth.

Militarily the United States and its allies and partners train together, exercise together, and at times patrol together – strengthening the existing bond and building trust. The sometimes loose and sometimes tight coordination seeks a common goal: an air and maritime environment that follows international rules and prevents coercive behavior. This is especially important in the congested environment in the South China Sea, where roughly 90 percent of the trade in the region transits.
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