Nor has the U.S. cultivated the kind of ties with China that would allow Washington to happily cede influence to Beijing in the way that Britain ultimately relinquished maritime influence to the United States (first in the Caribbean and later in the Mediterranean). Britain and the U.S. were of a like mind when it came to governing the maritime commons, something decision-makers in London could be fairly sure of. By contrast, Chinese intentions are the subject of heated debate in the contemporary United States. For better or worse, conciliating China over the South China Sea would look like appeasement at home and abroad—it would antagonize America’s allies, embolden China, and cause great embarrassment in domestic politics.
The model that the United States seems to be being followed is Britain’s pivot to the Mediterranean in the 1890s and early 1900s, when Royal Navy squadrons were redeployed from the Caribbean and East Asia in order to counter the Franco-Russian rapprochement in European waters and later Germany’s growing naval might. This rebalance—essentially a move to prevent the balance of power in Europe from being upended—succeeded in extended British naval hegemony in European waters for several decades, and could be considered an early prototype of the Obama administration’s own “pivot” to Asia.