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US stance on maritime dispute

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
June 2, 2015

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

USA Militärpräsenz im Südchinesischem Meer
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Abbugao

Speaking to the BBC during a visit to Vietnam, Carter said the US 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 US military operations at all."

The statements come amid rising tensions between Washington over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The US 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 US interests in the region, its stance on the dispute, and why it rejects a new area of Chinese dominance in Asia.

Ernest Bower
Bower: 'Washington believes that if China is allowed to bully its neighbors and define a new area of geopolitical dominance, it will destabilize Asia and the world'Image: CSIS

DW: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently said the US 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 US, 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 US military operations at all. We will fly, we will sail, we will operate here in the Pacific as we always have." What is the US willing to do to ensure that it plays a pivotal role in the reagion should China maintain its current stance?

Carter is trying to signal US 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 US Administration takes control of the White House in 2017.

Carter is saying "hold on, you are misjudging US 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.

Why is the US getting involved in this dispute between China and neighboring Southeast Asian countries?

The US does not have any territorial or maritime claims in the South China Sea. There are six disputants - Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The US is interested because its treaty allies and partners are seeking help in convincing China, a large and proximate power in Asia, that it should not use its newly developing economic and military power to impose its will on its neighbors, and instead make and play by international rules with other countries across the Indo-Pacific.

The US also wants to ensure that the trade routes and lines of communication – the principle of freedom of navigation – are ensured in these critically important waters that carry nearly two-thirds of world trade and much of its energy resources to markets.

The US also wants to convince China early in its arrival on the world stage as a global power that it is in its interests to use the rule of law to pursue its interests. Washington believes that if China is allowed to bully its neighbors and define a new area of geopolitical dominance, it will destabilize Asia and the world.

How does the US view the China's actions and policy in the South China Sea?

The US understands that China has legitimate concerns about its claims in the South China Sea. It also knows that China feels it was distracted by its internal challenges for decades while its neighbors moved ahead with energy development in the South China Sea.

Therefore, it made a very large claim, the 9-dash line, in 2009, in part as a legal strategy to slow down its neighbors and as a way to push itself back into contention for control of the maritime domain out to the first and second island chains - in effect, declaring a new area of Chinese dominance in Asia.

The US believes if China was allowed to move in this direction, it would destabilize Asia initially and quickly the world. Asian neighbors are asking the United States to get more involved to help provide geopolitical ballast to China's push.

How could China and the US find common ground in this situation?

China and the US share an overwhelming set of common interests in Asia – maintaining peace, promoting economic development, managing climate change, providing for greater regional security. However, the two countries have different views of the means to those ends.

China wants to pursue a Sino-centric model for Asian economic integration and guaranteeing security. The problem is that no other Asian nation wants China to dominate them and play this role. They want balance and have been convinced in the years following the end of War World II, that the US does not have any sovereign or territorial ambitions in Asia. No one is sure about China on that account.

To which extent do you think China is willing to ease tensions?

China has a very clear long term strategy to establish dominant control of its near seas and play a dominant role in Asia by 2050. Therefore, we can expect that China may decide to ease tensions tactically, but patterns of behavior over the last decade suggest it is not likely to stop its push until it experiences real costs to the pursuit of its longer term objectives.

What is not clear is what those costs should be and how they will be implemented effectively. Given the size and momentum of China's rapid economic and military rise, it is likely this will need to be a coordinated effort by the rest of the world to ensure China that all want it to prosper economically, participate as a contributor of global public goods, and to be secure.

However, it needs to be convinced that the best way to play this influential role is by helping to design and implement the laws that will govern world commerce and security.

Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

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