China and the United States are at strategic odds in the South China Sea. The U.S. is striving to maintain — and if necessary — demonstrate its dominance while China is expanding its might and reach. Respective nuclear warfare strategies may even play a role with China basing and operating its nuclear armed submarines there while the U.S. seeks to neutralize them.

The U.S. and China have had some rather dangerous flare-ups during U.S. intelligence-gathering activities there regarding what China believes are U.S. violations of the Law of the Sea and the U.S. maintains is its right to freedom of navigation. Indeed, the EP-3 and the Impeccable incidents have tested the nerves of commanders and defense leaders on both sides.

The recent rash of China bashing in the U.S. has not helped the situation. Aaron Friedberg, who was a close adviser to former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, argues for a higher defense budget to meet the China “threat” — even in the face of overwhelming U.S. fiscal challenges. Concern about China’s military “buildup” has also spread to U.S. allies Japan and Australia. Friedberg maintains that China is seeking to become “Asia’s dominant power by eroding the credibility of America’s security guarantees, hollowing out its alliances and eventually easing it out of the region.” If this “challenge” is not met, warns Friedberg, “China will be able to sow doubt in America’s staying power and thus persuade Southeast Asian countries to “accommodate China’s wishes.” Meanwhile, Dan Blumenthal and colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute have called for an adequate defense budget “to cope with the looming China threat.” Their article says failure to do so could “lead to Armageddon.”

While a certain amount of China bashing may be expected from the defense community and its supporters, especially in a time of pending major defense budget cuts, these analysts seem to be going over the top. These are difficult times in America for government and the people — “times that try men’s souls.” In some countries faced with such deep domestic political problems, it might be tempting to distract the populace by blaming another country — in this case China — for many of its own problems. Could this happen in the U.S.?

The U.S. military is already planning to meet the China “threat.” The latest U.S. National Military Strategy states that “To safeguard U.S. and partner nation interests, the U.S. will be prepared to demonstrate the will and commit the resources needed to oppose any nation’s actions that jeopardize access to and use of the global commons and cyberspace, or that threaten the security of our allies.” This is clearly aimed at China and in particular its actions in the South China Sea.

Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said China’s investment in anti-ship weapons and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific. The U.S. Navy currently has clear military superiority over Chinese naval forces, an advantage that is likely to last for many years to come. However, this does not negate real concerns about a Chinese threat to U.S. naval operations close to China, raising doubts about the U.S. ability to defend Taiwan. Making the U.S. response perfectly clear, Gates has said simply that “the U.S. will increase its military presence in Asia.”

Some leaders in China — particularly in the military — may be convinced that the die is cast and that the U.S. is trying to draw the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or some of its members together with Australia, Japan and South Korea — and perhaps India — into an alliance to constrain if not contain China. The U.S. explains its continued military presence in the region as necessary to maintain peace and stability. But certainly China believes an alternative rationale — maintenance of American dominance.

Concomitant with growing U.S.-China military competition is political competition for the “hearts and minds” of Southeast Asians. ASEAN claimants to islands, ocean space and resources have crossed diplomatic swords with China. The U.S. having confronted China on the issue in a July 2010 Foreign Ministers meeting in Hanoi — has been only too happy to help the ASEAN claimants. Particularly galling to China, the U.S. even offered to mediate the disputes. The diplomatic vitriol over the South China Sea peaked when Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai warned the U.S. to restrain other countries from “provoking” Beijing lest Washington itself be drawn into the disputes. But this is precisely what the U.S. has done — conflated its concerns regarding “freedom of navigation” with the ASEAN claimants’ territorial and jurisdictional disputes with China.

Clearly factions of the two countries are on a strategic collision course with perhaps one bell weather being the military activities of U.S. assets in Chinese-claimed waters. One respected analyst says “The risk of miscalculation — may be higher than many assume, and in the event of a confrontation, the potential for unintended escalation is significant.”

So does this mean a clash is inevitable? Perhaps eventually. But not now.

Neither nation is physically or psychologically prepared for such an event. It would not be in the interest of economically focused China, the economically challenged and war-weary U.S., or the not-so-innocent bystanders in the impotent ASEAN.

Nevertheless, the South China Sea situation cries out for management by leaders in both China and the U.S.

Mark Valencia, a former senior fellow with the East-West Center, is a maritime policy analyst.

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