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Calming the South China Sea

The South China Sea – one of East Asia’s major flashpoints – is making waves again, with military and diplomatic posturing reminiscent of the period from 2009 to mid-2011. A sensible way forward would begin with everyone calming down about China’s periodically provocative behavior.

CANBERRA – The South China Sea – long regarded, together with the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula, as one of East Asia’s three major flashpoints – is making waves again. China’s announcement of a troop deployment to the Paracel Islands follows a month in which competing territorial claimants heightened their rhetoric, China’s naval presence in disputed areas became more visible, and the Chinese divided the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose foreign ministers could not agree on a communiqué for the first time in 45 years.

All of this has jangled nerves – as did similar military posturing and diplomatic arm wrestling from 2009 to mid-2011. Little wonder: stretching from Singapore to Taiwan, the South China Sea is the world’s second-busiest sea-lane, with one-third of global shipping transiting through it.

More neighboring states have more claims to more parts of the South China Sea – and tend to push those claims with more strident nationalism – than is the case with any comparable body of water. And now it is seen as a major testing ground for Sino-American rivalry, with China stretching its new wings, and the United States trying to clip them enough to maintain its own regional and global primacy.

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