A Norweigian- and Chinese-owned offshore oil rig in the South China Sea, May 2006. (Bobby Yip / Courtesy Reuters)
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.
The United States' own interests in the islands are varied. To begin with, the U.S. Navy has long dominated this maritime region, which is a vital thoroughfare for U.S. warships heading from the Pacific to the Middle East. The United States is also obligated by treaty to defend Japan and its maritime lifelines. Hence, "freedom of navigation" in the East and South China Seas is an avowed U.S. national security priority.
The growing involvement of U.S. energy companies in the extraction of oil and natural gas from the South China Sea has added another layer to the United States' strategy. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy, major firms such as Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil have partnered with the state-owned oil companies of Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines to develop promising reserves in maritime territories claimed by these countries as well as China. In October 2011, for example, Exxon announced a major gas find in waters claimed by Vietnam that are also said to be part of China's own maritime territory.
For years, these obligations and interests were taken only half-seriously. In the George W. Bush years, and early in the Obama years, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated White House policymaking, allowing the administrations little time to think about maritime strategy in East Asia. That left a rising China virtually unchecked to assert indisputable rights to contested islands in the region and to use military force to back up its words. On several occasions, the Chinese navy thwarted rivals' efforts (which had often been undertaken in conjunction with U.S. firms) to explore oil and gas prospects in areas they claimed. In May and June 2011, for example, Chinese ships reportedly severed the exploration cables of seismic survey ships owned by PetroVietnam, which has partnered with ExxonMobil and other foreign firms to search for oil and gas in the South China Sea. According to documents released by WikiLeaks, Exxon has been warned by China to suspend its cooperation with PetroVietnam. As is typical, there has been little or no official U.S. response to China's actions.
In 2011, with U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama began to address the perceived decline in America's regional power position. Claiming that the Asia-Pacific region had become the new center of global economic dynamism, Obama set out to restore military dominance there. This meant, first and foremost, the reinforcement of U.S. forces in the Pacific, especially the Navy, which is slated to deploy 60 percent of its combat strength in the region (as compared to 50 percent at present); but, as Obama explained, it also entailed the reinvigoration of military ties with U.S. allies in the region, especially Japan and the Philippines. Although Obama has insisted that this so-called pivot to Asia was not intended to punish or contain China, it is hard to view it as anything else.