While the U.S. military remains preoccupied with ongoing operations in the Middle East, competition brewing in the South China Sea risks greater conflict if not properly managed. Two recent maritime incidents in the region involving the Chinese and American navies are manifestations of ongoing jockeying between the two powers, and are a reminder that subtle shifts in power have put new areas of Asia into play. In March, Chinese naval vessels harassed an American reconnaissance ship, the U.S.N.S. Impeccable, 75 miles off the coast of Hainan island, and in June, a Chinese submarine stalking a U.S. Navy destroyer collided with its trailing sonar array.
The Department of Defense agreed to hold a dialogue with their Chinese counterparts in the near future in the hopes of averting future incidents and establishing procedures to resolve them. This is a positive step. However, a number of disconcerting trends call into question the efficacy of U.S. policy in the region and highlight a dilemma for the United States that will only deepen over time.
Chinese territorial claims over the South China Sea and its islands and atolls overlap with those of a number of Southeast Asian nations. The volume of trade carried through its waters make it of vital strategic importance in Asia, while resource competition and military expansion have the potential to generate conflict.