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Tensions are rising in the East and South China Seas. America needs to walk a fine line between appeasement and confrontation when it comes to China.
Tensions are rising fast in East Asia as relations between China and several of its neighborscontinueto deteriorate. There have been ominous developments in just the past few days. Speaking in Shanghai to the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA),Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a veiled warningto countries about forming or strengthening alliances to counter China. “To beef up military alliances targeted at a third party is not conducive to maintaining common security in the region,” he admonished. Just hours later,the governments of Vietnam and the Philippines issued a statementthat they would jointly oppose “illegal” Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
Such developments place Washington in a most uncomfortable position. As the world’s leading maritime power, the United States cannot readily concede China’s extremely ambitious territorial claims. Those claims regarding the South China Sea, for example, encompass some 90 percent of that body of water. Much of the world’s commerce, including U.S. trade, passes through the sea lanes in the region. Allowing the South China Sea to graduallybecomede facto Chinese territorial watersthrough the creation of a vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)would give China a strategic stranglehold in an important region, something that is clearly not in America’s best interests.
Such a posture is profoundly unwise. The various territorial claims in the South China Sea are murky, from the standpoint of both law and history. Beijing’s claims do seem excessively broad and were certain to be resisted by other countries, but they are not outrageous. Given America’s own economic and security interests, the United States cannot prudently appease China by accepting Beijing’s maximum position, but U.S. officials also must be careful not to encourage excessively bold claims by the Philippines, Vietnam and other parties—especially if those countries cannot sustain their positions without U.S. militarysupport.
The situation with respect to the Chinese-Japanese feud in the East China Sea is at least as delicate. Japan ismorerelevant than any or all of the South China Sea countries as a strategic counterweight to China, and it is Washington’s most important ally in East Asia. Yet Beijing’s historical claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands may be stronger than its claims in the South China Sea. Although the islands were not included in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, which transferred Taiwan and other territories as spoils to Japan following the Sino-Japanese War, Tokyo took control of those islands the same year. The timing may have been coincidental, but Chinese officials and scholars argue strongly that it was all part of Japan’s aggressive territorial expansion, largely at China’s expense, and that the islands should have been “restored” to China after World War II, just as Taiwan and the other conquered territories were.
As with the competing claims in the South China Sea, it is extremely difficult to determine which country has law and history on its side. And given the strategic importance of the East China Sea, U.S. leaders are understandably reluctant to alter the status quo to Beijing’s benefit.
But Washington needs to explore ways in which it can accommodate some Chinese territorial objectives without needlessly undermining American interests. A middle course between appeasement and confrontation is essential. The current, implicitpolicyof “anyone but China” regarding the various claims is neither equitable nor sustainable.
Moreover, whatever positions the United States adopts regarding the South China Sea and the East China Sea, they should be based on a careful assessment of America’s best interests, not the interests and agendas, much less the whims, of allies or clients.