Why US should move beyond ASEAN in the South China Sea

Why US should move beyond ASEAN in the South China Sea
One of the two Vietnam Russian-built missile-guided frigates is seen docked at a bay in Manila November 25, 2014.

At a hearing of the US Senate Armed Services Committee in late February, its new chairman, John McCain asked Director of Intelligence James Clapper about what he called "dramatic" satellite photos demonstrating Chinese construction in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Clapper, in response, acknowledged the problem of China's "aggressive" pursuit of their "exorbitant claims." He also described regional concerns as a "good thing because, in the end, the regional countries' strength is if they can act collectively."

Clapper was only reflecting conventional wisdom of the last several years. Much of Washington, including key officials in the Obama administration, has supported a diplomatic approach to the crisis in the South China Sea that depends on regional processes. This is not unreasonable. Ideally, Southeast Asia would "act collectively" to frame the dispute, and the US could slip in behind to reinforce it.

The problem is that Southeast Asia's traditional vehicle for collective action, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has proven irrelevant to the search for a solution. The photos of China's ambitious extraterritorial land reclamations -- and the implications for China's projection of force to press its claims -- are only the most recent evidence.

Walter Lohman is director of the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

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