Protecting United States Interests in the South China Sea

  • Colonel David G. Ray

The multi-state maritime dispute in the South China Sea is a complex geopolitical problem and if left unchecked, a potential instigator of change in the international order. The United States does not take an official position on territorial disputes, but has four interests in the region; peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded movement of commerce. The competing interests, claims, and strategies of China and the Philippines are resulting in tensions that could lead to a broader loss of confidence in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an inadvertent escalation to hostilities on the high seas, and/or incidents of deliberate military action to secure disputed territory. These all have the potential to threaten U.S. interests. By ratifying the UNCLOS, creating a Pacific maritime forum, and leading a regional maritime protection network, the United States can reduce the factors pulling the region toward the highest-risk scenarios. These strategic actions will not resolve the ongoing territorial disputes, but will help decrease tensions and actively protect U.S. interests in the South China Sea.