The United States, China, and the South China Sea: Is regional order at risk?

(From Brookings)

By Jonathan D. Pollack

To judge by media accounts from last weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the United States and China are headed into very troubled waters. Beijing’s accelerated efforts to fortify reefs and shoals in the South China Sea and the U.S. Pacific Command’s surveillance of these activities—including press leaks that China has positioned two “motorized artillery pieces” on an unspecified location in the Spratly Islands—dominated news coverage. For many observers, this action-reaction cycle portends more worrisome possibilities.

Controversy and potential conflict represent the very lifeblood of print journalism and mass media. But policy makers, not media, are responsible for policy, and should not let media coverage or hyper-ventilation dictate their actions. Unfortunately, governments increasingly rely on media to buttress their policy positions and actions. In the run-up to the Shangri-La Dialogue, the U.S. Pacific Command unwisely enlisted CNN in its strategic messaging, and invited a CNN correspondent and camera crew on board the P-8 reconnaissance aircraft. Ample sensitivity and risk attaches to these missions, which (at least historically) U.S. military leaders treated as highly secret. However, the command concluded that the opportunity for widespread publicity—replete with recorded warnings from Chinese personnel for U.S. surveillance to desist from its actions near Beijing’s fortification efforts—was too good to pass up.

Are circumstances as worrisome as some seem to believe? Are the U.S. and Chinese governments equally mindful of the stakes and risks, and how do they propose to manage them? In the Singapore meeting, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and China’s Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Admiral Sun Jianguo, presented their respective cases to a large audience of senior officials, scholars, and corporate representatives. Read more

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