The rise of China has long dominated US policymakers. US policy makers spelt out their strategy for China initially in the Defence Planning Guidance (DPG) for fiscal years 1994-99, the first formal statement of US strategic goals in the post-Soviet era "we [must] endeavour to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power." By the time George W Bush came to office only China possessed the economic and military capacity to challenge the United States as an aspiring superpower.
Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton outlined America's pivot to South East Asia in the November 2011, she said to the CNN: "Our enduring interests in the region [Asia Pacific] demands our enduring presence in this region ... The United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay ... As we end today's wars [i.e. the defeats and retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan]... I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority ... As a result, reduction in US defence spending will not ... come at the expense of the Asia Pacific"
In 2012, strange names such as Half Moon Shoal, Scarborough Shoal, Subi Reef, the Spratlys and the Paracels have all made global headlines. Such places do not even constitute fully fledged islands, they are so small and often below water for so many hours per day that they are merely labelled as "features" in the hotly contested South China Sea. Many islands are so tiny, they are often submerged during high tide and lack water sources of their own.
However, irrespective of these 'features' the South China Sea has become the object of naval competition and bellicose language from the regions nations and beyond. The region includes China who has laid claim to the whole South China Sea as its core national interest – something it is prepared to go to war over. The problem with this is the seas are shared by the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, as well as Japan, Taiwan and both South and North Korea.
The 'features' mean little in and of themselves, but ownership of them advances claims to adjacent waters where substantial quantities of oil and natural gas may lie beneath the sea floor. Experts continue to argue that the amount of energy in the seabed has been exaggerated and does not constitute enough for any of the regions states to become energy-producing nations in their own right. This however is not what any of the states in the region believe. All the countries in the region are energy poor, have large import bills and believe the oil beneath the seabed is theirs, they fear missing out on the riches and potential development.
The South China Sea constitutes a chokepoint for international commerce. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal. Nearly 66% of South Korea's energy supplies, nearly 60% of Japan's and Taiwan's energy supplies, and 80% of China's oil imports come through the South China Sea. Unlike the Persian Gulf where mainly energy is transported, in the South China Sea energy, both finished and unfinished goods traverse the regions seas. In short the South China Sea is extremely strategic for what passes through it. This is why it is no surprise both China and the US have a deep interest in dominating the region.
America's pivot and claims by other nations in the region for the regions riches is fundamentally about China, and its rise as a power. China has been weak internally for over 200 years, for the last three decades China has been on the ascent and now believes it has the strength to project power beyond its borders. Thus, China is now claiming the bulk of the energy-rich South China Sea, and other nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines are pushing back.
China's economic ascent has been in parallel to its military ascent. Militarily China's has undergone considerable development. Mao's doctrine of 'human wave attacks' - having more soldiers than your enemy has bullets has been replaced with a smaller armed force (relatively) emphasizing new technologies. China's military development has been driven by the need to protect itself in the region and its supply lines. The Chinese military is currently seeking to project naval power well beyond the Chinese coast, from the oil ports of the Middle East to the shipping lanes of the Pacific, where the US has long reigned as the dominant force.
Its rapid navel development to protect its borders has worried the region. Whilst China has just rolled out its first aircraft carrier it has more than 60 submarines and is projected to have around 75 in the next decade, more than the US. Whereas most of China's submarines are diesel-electric and all of America's are nuclear, the latest Yuan-class diesel-electric models are reportedly equipped with air independent propulsion and increasingly difficult to detect. Because the Western Pacific constitutes China's home waters, China's submarines do not have to travel from half way across the world to get to the Asian military theatre as America's must. In the event of war, the US may only get to the theatre when the war is over.
Similarly China is rapidly developing its airpower. China has increased the number of its modern, fourth-generation aircraft from 50 to 600 since 2000, even as it has reduced the size of its overall air force from 3,000 combat aircraft to 2,000. This is in reality an illustration of the principal that military modernization is actually about smaller but more up-to-date force structures.
America's control of the international situation since WW2 has been built upon her military strength. Today the US does not enjoy the same primacy as it did prior to its invasion of Iraq. Iraq and Afghanistan have impacted US power and depleted her resources. The global economic crisis further exacerbated America's standing in the world, as it turned towards Socialist intervention to prop up its economy. Because of such challenges America's presence in the world is considered overstretched and untenable. As a result of America's apparent weakness, the challenges stemming from her competitors have grown in size and scope and today are much stronger. This is why nations such as Russia and China are being much more aggressive and confident in their claims in their regions and beyond. Since the collapse of Communism in 1990 the US is facing challenges to its power, which is coming from China in its region.
If there is any lesson for the Muslim world from the tensions in the South China Sea that is the confidence China has shown in challenging a weakening US. The Muslim world full of mineral wealth, a large population and straddle some of the world's most strategic waterways, however the Muslim rulers continue to operate form a position of weakness. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have failed in developing independent polices and have merely assisted the US in its agenda across the world.