The Real Danger in the South China Sea


Washington has made its point loud and clear in the South China Sea. But it is likely to be lost on Beijing.

“There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declared at a late May gathering of Asia Pacific’s top defense officials in Singapore. That statement came a few days after a fly-by of the US Navy’s P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft around the man-made islands China is busy building in the South China Sea. Such actions, Carter said, demonstrate that the U.S. “will continue to protect freedom of navigation and overflight.”

Beijing, however, likely does not see the U.S. Navy’s action as being aimed at upholding international law. Rather, it thinks Washington is mainly out to block its rise, a narrative that already dominates China’s geopolitical consciousness.

That reading has consequences.

China has a stake in keeping the global commons open and unimpeded—a norm upon which global trade as well as the Chinese economy depend—and it could be dissuaded from attempts to restrict access to the commons if sufficient opposition can be mobilized. But if that opposition is framed around the narrative of a bipolar power struggle, it will drive the region down a zero-sum track of escalating confrontation.


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