Rocks, Reefs, and U.S.-China Relations

By Goldstein, Lyle | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Rocks, Reefs, and U.S.-China Relations


Goldstein, Lyle, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

AS WAS EXPECTED, SPARES FLEW at the most recent iteration of the annual Shangri-La summit in Singapore. Like a prize 5ghter gathered at a champion boxing match, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter came out swinging in the much-anticipated encounter with Admiral Sun Jianguo, Chief of the General Sta6 of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). According to one account of the proceedings, Carter continued to "single out China as a bad actor in the region."1 The U.S. Secretary of Defense himself said: "China is out of step with both the international rules and norms that underscore the Asia-Paci5c's security architecture and the regional consensus that favors diplomacy and opposes coercion." 2 In a further dramatization of U.S. objections to China's current process of reclamation and building in the South China Sea, a senior U.S. Admiral 3ew over the disputed reefs in July 2015.3

The dispute over the South China Sea, involving six claimants and abundant untapped natural resources, is plenty complex and su

While the East China Sea situation has calmed down to an extent since mid-201Th, there are new fears that China-Japan military competition may move into the South China Sea. The advent of Chinese submarines patrolling the Indian Ocean with some regularity has also stoked fears that these maritime disputes may simply be the appetizers for a voracious dragon that is 5nally heading out to sea. In addition, the Ukraine Crisis has seemed to set the West on edge, lest Moscow and Beijing undertake genuine strategic coordination to counter their shared perception of U.S. hegemony. In this paper, I take issue with most of the conventional wisdom cited above, arguing that these maritime disputes do not herald a new era of Chinese expansionism, let alone Beijing's 5rst steps on the road to world conquest. To the contrary, they are the predictable byproduct of China assuming a larger role in world a6airs. Strategists need not exaggerate the geopolitical signi5cance of maritime disputes that are currently roiling the waters of East Asia. Anxieties will undoubtedly result from the reshuBing of familiar power relationships, but the general process of movement toward multipolarity is profoundly positive, not least for the United States.

THE SOUTH CHINA SEA CAULDRON

Despite a relatively quiet 5rst decade of the twenty-5rst century, the dispute over small groups of islets in the South China Sea-mainly the Spratlys in the southernmost area and the Paracels in the central area-now threatens to ignite not just regional turmoil, but also international con3ict. After the 2009 Impeccable incident in which Chinese 5shing boats were employed to drive a U.S. surveillance vessel away from international waters near Hainan Island, tensions have accrued precipitously. In July 2010, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton engaged in very direct verbal spar- ring over the South China Sea that exposed the zero-sum mindset congealing in both Washington and Beijing. …

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