“Now is the time for flexible, creative diplomacy focused on protecting America’s core maritime interests, not the territorial ambitions of favored East Asian countries.”

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An already tense and dangerous situation in the South China Sea threatens to become even worse.  The latest development focuses on reports that the United States is considering plans to initiate systematic military patrols with ships and planes in that volatile area. Without even waiting for confirmation that the reports are accurate, Beijing expressed its great displeasure regarding such a step.

If this actually comes to pass, Washington is about to deepen its involvement in a bitter, multi-sided territorial dispute.  The underlying issues are murky and complex.  Based on dubious interpretations of both history and international law, China claims an oceanic boundary that would convert some 80 percent of the South China Sea—and the small islands dotting itf—from international waters into Chinese territorial waters.  Beijing has begun to enforce its claims with air and naval patrols and major reclamation projects to build serviceable artificial islands (in one case, even including an runway) from nearly submerged reefs. Several neighboring countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, not only challenge Beijing’s claim, they assert significant territorial ambitions of their own. Vietnam has even commenced a more limited artificial island construction of its own.

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