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Why the US Pivot Toward Asia Could Increase Tensions With China

Calls for increased naval activity or troop deployments, while not directly destabilizing the region, may nevertheless act to further alienate China.

A US Navy ship in the South China sea.
Photo Credit: US Navy/Wikimedia Commons



The highly publicized dispute between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in recent weeks has become yet another reminder of the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea. The upheaval began when a former U.S. coast guard ship refitted by the Philippines navy attempted to detain Chinese fishermen off the shoal. The situation intensified when two Chinese Marine Surveillance craft arrived on the scene, leading to a two-day standoff. Finally the Philippines navy withdrew, but the countries have continued their political attacks on one another.

The United States has pledged to monitor the situation, and for the time it would appear the Philippines and China have backed down from allowing the conflict to escalate. But the recent row highlights some of the difficulty the United States will face as it seeks to reengage itself in the region. 

The war in Iraq is over. NATO operations and U.S. troop deployments to Afghanistan are due to wind down and come to a halt earlier than anticipated. And although Iran and Syria continue to give Washington cause for concern, the Obama administration is indeed striving to undertake the foreign policy “pivot” toward East Asia outlined last year. This pivot denotes  more a shift in focus than a realignment of resources or manpower. “I don’t really see this as a pivot,” said Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs. “What I see now is a return to a necessary normal.”

But the pivot still poses some challenges. Calls for increased naval activity or troop deployments, while not directly destabilizing the region, may nevertheless act to further alienate China and pose a greater risk for conflict to break out. Additionally, U.S efforts to maintain involvement in yet another region of the world would appear to come up against current economic constraints.

Behind the Pacific pivot lies an economic motivation, particularly in the South China Sea. Nearly $1.2 billion of U.S trade  traverses the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans through the South China Sea. In terms of global trade, 90 percent of all commercial goods are shipped from one continent to another. Of this nearly half of all gross tonnage and one-third of all monetary value is sent through the South China Sea. Additionally the sea holds an abundance of minerals, fish stocks, natural gas, and oil reserves. The United States is not actively seeking direct access these resources. But they are of vital importance to a number of U.S. strategic partners and allies in the region.

China and the South China Sea

Recent years have seen a flurry of discussion surrounding China’s claim to the South China Sea and its much-touted “ nine-dash line.” Although uncertainty still surrounds just what this line indicates, the line symbolizes China’s claimed territorial waters. China has tried to enforce territorial claims throughout the waters enclosed by the line, which encompasses nearly the entirety of the South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. Control of this area would give China effective control over vital sea-lanes as well as potentially important energy resources.

China has masked much of its policy in the region through a “talk and take” approach. That is to say that China has by and large maintained its fundamental approach to enforcing its claim over the South China Sea while making tactical adjustments when its actions are called into question. For example, after facing diplomatic backlash from labeling the region as a “core interest” on par with Taiwan or Tibet, the PRC has refrained from using similar language.

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