The United States Heads to the South China Sea

Why American Involvement Will Mean More Friction -- Not Less

When U.S. officials are asked to comment on disputes over contested islands in the western Pacific, they invariably affirm that the Obama administration has no position on issues of sovereignty but opposes any use of force to resolve the matter. "Whether with regard to disputes in the South China Sea or in the East China Sea," Deputy Secretary of State William Burns declared last October in Tokyo, the United States "does not take a position on the question of ultimate sovereignty." True to form, he continued, "What we do take a position on is the importance of dealing with those questions through dialogue and diplomacy and avoiding intimidation and coercion." In this and other such statements, the United States projects an aura of neutrality -- even suggesting, on occasion, that the country could serve as a good-faith mediator between disputants. But Washington's stance is less neutral than it appears and more geared toward violent conflict than talking it out.

In the East China Sea, China and Japan are squabbling over a cluster of small, uninhabited islands called the Diaoyu by the Chinese and the Senkaku by the Japanese. Japan has administered the islands since the end of World War II, but China, Taiwan, and Japan all lay claim to them. In the South China Sea, meanwhile, tensions have flared over several island groups, most notably the Spratly and Paracel islands (called, respectively, the Nansha and Xisha by China). China, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim all of these islands, and Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines claim some of them.

Little more than rock formations, the islands possess hardly any value in and of themselves. But they are believed to sit astride vast undersea reserves of oil and natural gas -- lucrative caches for whichever country can get to them. Beyond the economic boon it would be, the Chinese view acquisition of the islands (along with the recovery of Taiwan) as the final dismantling of the imperial yoke of Western powers and Japan. The other claimants, meanwhile, see retaining control of the islands as a necessary act of defiance in the face of China's growing power and assertiveness.

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