U.S. Expected To Remain Neutral In South China Sea Disputes

One experts sees China is rethinking past aggression toward its neighbors over S. China Sea rights.

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Chinese navy training ship "Zhenghe" arrives at Saigon Port in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

As China and its neighbors bicker about rights to the profitable minerals and fossil fuels beneath the floor of the South China Sea, some say it is unlikely Washington will take a side as squabbles continue to emerge.

China has warned neighbors in recent months to refrain from conducting military exercises in the South China Sea. The sea is a hotly contested issue in Asia, with China and other nations claiming to own it and the vast natural resource fields believed to be under it.

"Some [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries want a more forceful role by the U.S." in arbitrating their disputes with Beijing, says Bonnie Glaser, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow. "But others want a less forceful role. This poses a dilemma for the United States."

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As it has in several other South China Sea disputes, Glaser told reporters on a Monday conference call that she sees evidence Washington will "seek to preserve peace and stability and not take sides." For instance, American officials so far have declined to state publicly that a security treaty with the Philippines "would cover this," she says.

By essentially threatening its neighbors to stay out of certain parts of the sea, experts say Beijing sometimes undermines its own strategic interests. But Glaser sees signs Beijing is coming to understand the potential risks.

"I think there will be an effort in Beijing to rethink" its South China Sea aggressiveness "because they don't want to push their neighbors into U.S. arms," Glaser says.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a CFR fellow, predicts countries like the Philippines and Vietnam will increasingly rely on non-U.S. power brokers to put pressure on China to resolve disputes. One potential new entrant into the situation: Russia, which he says wants to increase its navy's activities in southeast Asian waters, which would allow to also increase its political and military sway in its own backyard.

Other Asian countries currently battling with China over the water boundaries would also welcome Russia.

"Vietnam would be happy," Kurlantzick says, "to make money from countries that want to use their facilities."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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