A CSIS adviser looks at U.S. stance on the South China Sea dispute

(From Deutsche Welle)

Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said the U.S. will continue to play a “pivotal” role in Asia. DW spoke to analyst Ernest Bower about Washington’s role in the dispute.

Speaking to the BBC during a visit to Vietnam, Carter said the U.S. would “continue to do what we have done for seven decades since World War II ended – by being the pivotal military power in the region, which we are and will continue to be,” adding that “nothing will stop U.S. military operations at all.”

The statements come amid rising tensions between Washington over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The U.S. accuses China of creating islands that could be used as airstrips in the Spratly Islands and has vowed to continue sending military aircraft and ships to the tense region to protect navigation right.

Washington has repeatedly called on Beijing and others to end reclamation projects in the disputed waters. Beijing, however, rejects those demands, saying it is exercising its sovereignty and using the controversial outposts to fulfill international responsibilities.

In a DW interview, Ernest Bower, the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, talks about the U.S. interests in the region, its stance on the dispute, and why it rejects a new area of Chinese dominance in Asia.

DW: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently said the U.S. will continue to play a “pivotal” role in Asia in the future. What does Carter mean by this?

Ernest Z. Bower: Secretary Carter is signaling that the United States is politically, financially and strategically committed and able to sustain its role as an Asia Pacific nation. Further, Carter has been clear that he understands that economics is core to a sustainable peace in Asia.

He said last month that “TPP is more important to me than another aircraft carrier.” Carter means that for the U.S., the most important region in the world in terms of new economic growth and dynamic security balancing will be in Asia.

Carter was also quoted as saying: “Nothing will stop U.S. military operations at all. We will fly, we will sail, we will operate here in the Pacific as we always have.” What is the U.S. willing to do to ensure that it plays a pivotal role in the region should China maintain its current stance?

Carter is trying to signal U.S. determination not to allow China to continue to impinge on the sovereign interests of its neighbors using force and actions that are outside of international law.

China perceives weakness in Washington’s geopolitical determination and it thinks it has the remaining 20 months of President Obama’s administration to push ahead and try to change the facts on the seas before a new U.S. Administration takes control of the White House in 2017.

Carter is saying “hold on, you are misjudging U.S. determination.” So now both Beijing and Washington are trying at the same time to pursue diplomacy and strengthen ties at the same time each is testing other’s tolerance for risk. This is a very dangerous time. Read more

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