Nick Bisley, nationalinterest.org
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The South China Sea has become increasingly contested in 2015. Prompted by China’s extensive reclamation program, the complex and multilayered dispute has become a dominant feature in regional diplomacy and strategic dialogue. The contest has been keenly watched, not because it is likely to trigger a great-power conflict, but because of what it tells us about the broader regional dynamics of Sino-American contestation. Indeed nothing seems to illustrate Asia’s period of power transition than the brash upstart defying the dominant power by building islands with strategic intent.
The U.S. has made plain many times, both publically and privately, its dissatisfaction with China’s activities. ...
The United States opted to begin a series of freedom of navigation exercises that were intended to show that America did not recognize any change in the status of the waters surrounding the newly built islands. The first of these involved the dispatch of USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, along with a P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft, to undertake such an exercise in the waters surrounding Subi Reef, with similar activities likely to occur every six weeks or so.
Not only was the U.S. response slow, the public diplomacy surrounding it was poorly managed. U.S. officials have not clearly and consistently stated what kind of activity was undertaken. Some officials have stated that it was a freedom of navigation exercise – in which military vessels undertake activity that is legitimate on the high seas but not acceptable in territorial waters. Others say Lassen exercised ‘innocent passage’, that is conduct not only acceptable in territorial waters but indirectly reflecting recognition of territorial claims. No detailed information about just what happened has yet been provided.
However, America’s problem relates not just to the optics of its activity and woeful coordination among the various branches of government in Washington, but it also appears to misread what China wants in the South China Sea. Indeed this mirrors much of the commentary that has fixated on the narrow technical concerns and not on the larger strategic picture. ...
Until such time as the United States and its allies realize the scale of China’s ambition and develop suitably strategic responses, China will continue to act as if the South China Sea is Chinese. And the longer that takes, the more likely that reality becomes.