By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - While much of the world's attention has been focused on United States-Iranian tensions over the Strait of Hormuz, a key think-tank is urging Washington to devote more focus and resources on another important hub for international commerce several thousand kilometers to the east.
In a major report released here on Tuesday, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) called for Washington to pursue a policy of "cooperative primacy" in the South China Sea in order to both avoid future conflict with Beijing and preserve freedom of navigation and the independence of smaller countries in the region.
The 115-page report, "Cooperation from Strength: the United States, China and the South China Sea", also calls for the US to increase its naval fleet from 285 warships to 346 vessels over the coming years in order to counter regional perceptions that it is a declining power.
"Diplomatic and economic engagement with China and others will work better when backed by a credible military posture," according to the report, which was pulled together by Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Program, who also stressed that any naval build-up "must be contingent on healthy economic growth in the future - a strategic priority for the United States".
"As the decades-old rules-based system fostered by the United States is being called into question by a rising China, the South China Sea will be the strategic bellwether for determining the future of US leadership in the Asia-Pacific region."
The report follows last week's release by President Barack Obama of a new, cost-cutting national defense strategy that confirmed his intention to "pivot" or "rebalance" Washington's global military forces "toward the Asia-Pacific region", and is certain to be read carefully by regional specialists due to the close ties that exist between CNAS and the administration.
CNAS's co-founder, for example, was Kurt Campbell, the senior Asia aide at the Pentagon during the Bill Clinton administration, who currently serves as the top Asia hand at the State Department. CNAS's other co-founder, Michele Flournoy, served in the top policy post in the Pentagon under Obama before stepping down late last year.
Like the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage that connects the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea and wider Indian Ocean and through which about 40% of the world's exported oil passes, the South China Sea is considered one of the world's most valuable and strategic bodies of water.
Long a rich fishing ground and now perhaps the world's single-most important trading route, the South China Sea connects the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific through the Strait of Malacca.
Its seabed covers at least seven billion barrels of proven oil reserves (China has calculated as much as 130 billion barrels) and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making its waters and the tiny, rocky Paracel and Spratley island chains that dot its surface the subject of conflicting or overlapping territorial claims by no less than eight countries: China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Over the past two years, China has become increasingly aggressive in asserting its sovereignty claims over virtually the entire Sea, sometimes taking military action to enforce them, such as last May when its coast guard cut the cable being laid by a Vietnamese oil exploration vessel.
Coupled with the rapid build-up of its naval capabilities, Beijing's actions and intent have spurred growing concern among the other claimants, driving some of them, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, to seek closer security ties with Washington.
They were heartened in July 2011 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared at an Asian forum that Washington itself had a "national interest" in preserving freedom of navigation in the region and open access to its maritime commons. She also suggested that Washington could "facilitate" regional talks to resolve territorial disputes.
Beijing was infuriated by her statement both by its assertion of a US national interest so far from its borders and its implicit endorsement of a multilateral approach to addressing the conflicting claims that Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei had long favored. China has preferred to address disputes with each country on a bilateral basis.
Since then, Washington has, among other steps, upgraded military ties and conducted joint exercises with Vietnam and the Philippines.
It has also reached an agreement with Singapore to base two littoral combat ships there and another, announced during Obama's swing through the region in November, with Australia to continuously rotate up to 2,500 marines on a military base closest to the South China Sea in the Northern Territory in the first long-term expansion of the US military presence in the Asia/Pacific region since the Vietnam War.
The CNAS report's authors clearly approve of these steps but suggest that more will be needed in order to reassure the smaller states that Washington stands by them even as China will likely expand its own military and naval capabilities at a faster rate.
"The inability of the United States to project sufficient power into the South China Sea would alter the security calculus for all of the countries in the region," according to the report. Such a situation, it went on, could lead to the "Finlandization" by China of the littoral countries states, a reference to Finland's Soviet-enforced neutrality during the Cold War.
"We want the US to maintain the present correlation of forces," said Robert Kaplan, co-author of the report's introductory chapter which compared Beijing's larger strategic ambitions in the South China Sea to Washington's at the end of the 19th century.
"Remember, it was dominance of the Greater Caribbean Basin that effectively gave turn-of-the-20th-century America's dominance over the Western hemisphere, with power to spare for affecting the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. Something similar might ensue were China to ever become the hegemon of the South China Sea," according to the report.
To maintain its primacy, Washington should not only reverse the decline of its navy, according to the report, but also encourage its partners and allies in the region to strengthen their own military capabilities and establish new security partnerships with each other so that the burden on the US is reduced.
"Nationalism in South China Sea countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia - as well as countries further afield like India, Japan and Korea - may be the best basis for stitching together common interests in a loose, almost invisible network of like-minded and increasingly capable maritime state that are willing to deflect Chinese hegemony," the report states.
At the same time, Washington should be respectful of the desire by those states to remain on good terms with Beijing.
"With China striving to dominate the Western Pacific, East Asian countries are keener than ever to partner with the United States," according to the report. "Yet these same countries also wish to avoid conflict with an increasingly powerful China that is also a principal trading partner."