The U.S.-China Perception Gap in the South China Sea

Commentary | August 22, 2016

The United States and China perceive the South China Sea issue in starkly different terms, writes David Firestein, EWI's Senior Vice President for the Strategic Trust-Building Initiative and Track 2 Diplomacy, in The Diplomat.

Over at least the last year, no single issue has dominated the U.S.-China bilateral agenda more than that of the South China Sea (SCS). Though the United States and China have no inherently incompatible official positions on the issue—unlike China, the United States is not a claimant to any territory or water in the South China Sea and takes no position on the merits of the disputed sovereignty issues—the two countries nonetheless have seen bilateral tensions ratchet up markedly as a result of a seemingly inexorable tit-for-tat dynamic.

The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA’s) July 12 announcement of its decision on a case brought by the Philippines challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea—a decision in which the PCA sided emphatically with the Philippines, ruling that China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea are without historical basis or legal merit—and China’s principled and categorical rejection the validity of that verdict (and the very process that generated it) have cast into further relief the evident intractability of the South China Sea dispute.

While the United States and China have both taken steps in recent weeks seemingly designed to generate at least a modicum of de-escalation, most observers believe that the South China Sea issue will figure prominently on the U.S.-China agenda (as well as on the East Asian and Southeast Asian foreign policy agendas) for years, if not decades, to come; and indeed, some regard the South China Sea as a crucible for possible major international conflict and even world war.


To read the complete article in The Diplomat, click here.