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US Strategy against the Rise of China in the South China Sea

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In recent ages, no international maritime dispute has garnered more attention than the contest over the islands, reefs and waters of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is not only a strategic geographical site, but also has countless potential reserves in resources such as natural gas and oil, making it a flashpoint for conflicts among the US and the bordering states. One major motive regarding the struggle experienced in the South China Sea is the determination for controlling natural resources. The US has turned its attention towards Asia and the main reason for its interest is the growing military and economic power of China. Officials inside the Pentagon came up with a strategy that was meant to push America’s interests in SCS, in particular to contain the Chinese power rush that is threatening USA’s position in global affairs.

Furthermore, the South China Sea is the second busiest oceanic lane in the world. China’s rapid rise as a great power stands for noteworthy developments in the current global system. In the recent past, China has made extraordinary progress in the form of military upgrades. China’s economic transparency remains pointedly lower than that of the United States and its major Asia Pacific allies, despite current advancement. The world, and particularly the south eastern states, observed not only the rise and rebirth of China, but also the growth of the whole region with China as its driving force. Together with these rising capabilities, China has become more diplomatically involved, seeking to settle territorial disputes that have been there for a long time, to be more involved in global and regional institutions, and to nurture their relationships globally, from Southeast Asia to Africa and Latin America.

The US is heading towards the South China Sea to meet its next strategic challenge after a decade of manoeuvres in the mountains and deserts of the Middle East. In particular, the US is keen to contain China’s growing political, military and economic impact in the region. The US containment policy has caused an increase in military presence in SCS which is threatening trade and world peace as tensions continue to rise. Consequently, the US’s containment strategy cannot work, and this policy works as a destabilizing factor rather than a stabilizing influence in the South China Sea. The use of diplomacy without the threat of military intervention would be more beneficial to the growth and stability of both countries, as well as to China’s neighbours in the South China Sea region. Specifically, what is required for peaceful and mutually agreeable resolutions to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea is for an abandonment of the containment policy and pattern change towards recognizing China not as an opponent, but as a companion.

The Theory of Containment. The theory of containment was executed by the US to prevent the spread of Soviet idealism in the post-World War II era. This theory speculated that any state that adopted the Soviet influence could afterward influence all neighbouring countries through a domino effect. In other words, since the Cold War, the US government has become used to considering the world as if it were a chess board on which it is the solitary player in the game and the others are fragments. The US has constantly oriented its strategy toward the attainment and maintenance of its predominant power over its competitors. It formed an international system planned for its interests and to maximize its national power. These dynamics are based upon three dimensions: diplomatic, political, and military. The US military is working to contain China in Asia, and even though political leaders of the country disagree with it, American policymakers have established a strategy that would check the swelling Chinese military and economic power.

The raw materials and oil transported through the sea lane in South Sea China are crucial to the rising Chinese economy. China on its end has formalized its political standing for ‘Greater China’ by signing a free trade agreement with Macau, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. During President Obama’s government, the US became closer to Vietnam as a key part in the US-planned containment policy, in which Vietnam plays a three-dimensional role. As far as the financial dimension is concerned, Vietnam is a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (more precisely, a free trade agreement), which purposely excludes China. In interpretation of the diplomatic dimension of containment, Vietnam supports the Philippines against China in the clash over the South China Sea and stresses collaboration among the member countries of the ASEAN as a genuine regional forum. Lastly, as far as the military containment dimension is concerned, the US raised the arms embargo and instantaneously increased financial support for the maritime development of Hanoi which shows the reputation of Vietnam for the US containment strategy.

However, in conventional terms, the key Us interests in South Asia are: prevention of itself from being edged out of the region by another power or group of powers; promotion of balance and stability of power - with the main objective of keeping Southeast Asia from being solely dominated by any hegemony; protection of sea lanes and freedom of navigation; supporting treaty friends and allies; democracy promotion, trade and investment interests; rule of law, religious freedom, and human rights. A current addition to this list is the prevention of the region from becoming a base for backing terrorists. The same cliché the US always has, they never say what it is but their real objective is noticeably clear. America’s intention is to suppress the Chinese rise to prevent a transition of power in the future.

The containment policy for China has improved recently as a result of China’s rising influence in the region and internationally. Much importance is put on the views of China (by the USA) as a competitor, if not a full-blown rival. China and the US are trading buddies with China having imported goods worth $116 billion from the US while it transferred goods worth $482 billion to the US in 2015. A replication of the containment strategy employed towards USSR in the Cold War era would not work if used against China. During the Cold War era, the economic interdependence between the US and USSR was insignificant as compared to that between China and the US. It will also be difficult for the US to successfully assemble dependable alliances against China.

To conclude, it is evident that the case of China and US is far different than that of the US and USSR during the Cold War era. The policy of containment once helped the US in becoming the global hegemon, but this time the confronting state, i.e. China, is much stronger in all aspects than the USSR was back in the day. Furthermore, implementing a containment policy against the USSR was quite imaginable during the Cold War because neither the US nor its allies had much to lose. Most US allies, such as Japan and South Korea, have massive economic dependence on China. Japan’s leading trade partner is China. It would not be easy for Japan to lose a major trading partner if it supports a challenging US policy. Therefore, the containment policy against China is a poor choice for the US.

China does not possess sufficient military power to directly confront the US, but American policymakers view Chinese military development as threatening. However, the US treating China as a foe would lead to China retorting in kind. Beijing would shape a military to challenge US existence in Asia while seeking ties with other states that feel displeased with US hegemony. China is strategically working to advance its power across the world and seeking control of the SCS would be a fundamental gain in national dignity. However, China does not seek to amend the international system of relations and can be valuable as a member of the world’s security community.