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Scramble in the South China Sea: Regional Conflict and U.S. Strategy

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Technical Report

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Air War College Air University Maxwell AFB United States

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The South China Sea region has emerged in the 21st century as an area of unrivalled economic activity, significant natural resources, and a global hub of seaborne commerce. Adjoining nations are aggressively pursuing sovereignty claims over the scattered islets and reefs of the Sea in order to exploit and develop marine resources, while they seek to balance a rising China and a distant U.S. hegemon. Despite the colossal stakes, American strategy for the region is largely rhetorical and reactionary.Focused on six statesthe Peoples Republic of China PRC, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesiathis essay examines the drivers of regional conflict and sources of instability and competition in detail. Both individual national strategies and the multilateral efforts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN are analyzed in the light of U.S. engagement. Ultimately, the essay advocates a fresh approach of sustainable engagement that would focus on facilitating resolution of sovereignty issues and promoting equitable resource distribution while building partner capacity to more effectively and efficiently secure the maritime commons. Only the U.S. has the diplomatic and economic power levers to compel lasting change and stability in the region.

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