The South China Sea contretemps has taken a decided turn for the worse. The United States has upped the ante in its contest of wills with China by deploying an aircraft carrier strike group to the South China Sea. This came on the heels of a warning from U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter of "specific consequences" for China's continued "aggressive" actions in the Sea.
The strike group was preceded by U.S. "freedom of navigation operations" using guided missile destroyers and overflights by nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. Such shows of force near a rival's claimed territory invite a response and increase the risk of a military clash that could spin out of control. Indeed, this projection of one of the most prominent symbols of American power changes the nature and prognosis of the "game." The situation has now reached a critical level that cannot be ignored by Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
How did it get to this point and how can the two avoid or postpone the seeming inevitable — or does the U.S. even want to do so? The context is important. The U.S. "rebalancing" to Asia has come face to face with China's desire to control its near-shore waters. Indeed the two have converging strategic trajectories. Domination of command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4 ISR) in and over China's near-shore waters is critical for both. Indeed, this is where their national security interests collide. This collision has produced a series of international incidents in which China has challenged U.S. ISR vessels and aircraft like the EP-3 (2001), the Impeccable (2009), the Cowpens (2013) and P-8A Poseidons (2014 and 2015).