In this chapter, I explore the recent competition over maritime rights in the South China Sea. This competition over maritime rights is related to but distinct from other components of maritime security in the region, including competing claims to territorial sovereignty over island groups, freedom of navigation and naval modernization.
I argue that despite the recent escalation of tensions between 2009 and 2011, armed conflict in the South China Sea is far from inevitable:
- The competition over maritime rights in the South China Sea has not become militarized, nor has it reached the levels of instability that the region witnessed between 1988 and 1995.
- Although some observers focus on China as the primary antagonist, the competition stems from an increasing willingness of all claimants, especially Vietnam, to assert and defend their claims.
- The July 2011 agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China over guidelines for implementing the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea has created diplomatic breathing space that has been exploited to reduce tensions.
- Cooperative initiatives could reduce future competition over maritime rights but will require political will and diplomatic creativity to move forward.
The disputes over maritime rights and territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea pose distinct challenges that the United States must navigate:
- The United States should reaffirm its interests in the region when they may be challenged and maintain its longstanding principle of neutrality and not taking sides in the territorial disputes of other countries.
- The United States must balance efforts to maintain stability in the South China Sea against actions that could inadvertently increase instability, especially greater involvement in the resolution of the dispute itself – an action that would be seen in the region and beyond as moving away from the principle of neutrality.
- The United States should affirm the principles that Secretary Clinton articulated in July 2010 and apply them equally to all claimants in the South China Sea disputes, not just China.
- The United States should not take a position on what specific modes or forums should be used to resolve or manage these disputes, so long as they are agreed upon by the claimants without coercion.
- The United States should not offer to facilitate talks or mediate the dispute.
The chapter is part of a volume on the South China Sea, Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea, published by the Center for New American Security, a research organization in Washington, DC.