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A Modest US Concession Can Reduce Tensions in the South China Sea

August 13, 2018 in Economics

By Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter

Tensions between China and the United States are rising on
multiple fronts. The onset of dueling tariffs is threatening to
trigger a full-fledged bilateral trade war. Beijing’s anger
is rising about Washington’s growing attempts to upgrade
diplomatic and military ties with Taiwan. Finally, the two
countries are sparring dangerously over their respective policies
and goals in the South China Sea.

All of those disputes are dangerous, but the Taiwan and South
China Sea issues hold the most potential for poisoning the
bilateral relationship and escalating into war. Compromise
regarding Taiwan is inherently elusive, but a modest change in U.S.
policy could significantly dampen tensions in the South China Sea.
Specifically, Washington needs to dramatically reduce its
confrontational “freedom of navigation” patrols and
stop treating Beijing as a disruptive element, if not an outright
threat, in that region.

One longstanding reason for a large-scale U.S. naval presence in
the western Pacific is the importance of unimpeded shipping to the
health of the global economy. U.S. political and economic leaders
fret about potential disruptions to the flow of commerce and have
done so for decades. That is an understandable concern. The United
Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that 80% of world trade measured by volume
and 70% measured by value travels by sea.

The sea lanes transiting the South China Sea are especially
crucial arteries. UNCTAD’s analysis shows that one-third of
global shipping passes through that body of water. A conservative
estimate of the annual dollar value by the Center for Strategic and
International Studies’ China Power Project put the figure at $3.37
trillion, but concedes that other estimates are as high as $5.3
trillion. The CSIS study emphasizes that the waters “are
particularly critical for China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea,
all of which rely on the Strait of Malacca, which connects the
South China Sea and, by extension, the Pacific Ocean with the
Indian Ocean.”

U.S. leaders increasingly view China as a potential menace to
that commerce. The root of Washington’s suspicion is the
extent and intensity of Beijing’s territorial claims in the
South China Sea. It is not a new issue. In December 1947, the
government of the Republic of China (Chiang Kai-shek’s
regime) issued a map delineating an 11-dash line (later reduced to
a 9-dash line) that laid claim to more than 80% of the South China
Sea. The communist regime that overthrew Chiang two years later and
established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) subsequently
embraced that claim.

Until the past decade or so, though, Beijing’s audacious
territorial ambition remained little more than theoretical. The PRC
lacked the military power to make even a …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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