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Professionally converted for accurate flowing-text e-book format reproduction, this unique book focuses on six states - the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC), Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia - and 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.

The recent pivot in American foreign policy to the Asia-Pacific basin acknowledges new geopolitical realities: the center of the global economy has shifted and the region is struggling for balance amidst contending powers. The fact that Asia will dominate this century economically is clear—its economies are projected to expand to 37% of world GDP in 2014, and the region will trade places to top the West in all measures of economic power within the span of a single generation, from 1990 to 2030. Unfortunately, Asia also lacks a comprehensive security arrangement, and nowhere is the need for cooperation and regional stability more pressing than in the South China Sea (SCS). Despite its modest size, the Sea is "a mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce" around the demographic hub of the 21st-century world economy. As Southeast Asian states interact with growing Chinese diplomatic, economic, and military power in the region, the SCS is likely to become a strategic bellwether for continued U.S. leadership in the western Pacific along with unfettered global access to the Sea.

A number of issues in the SCS—natural resource development, freedom of navigation, and sovereignty disputes—create a backdrop of strategic regional competition against which the coastal nations must balance a rising Chinese neighbor and a distant American hegemon. Current U.S. strategy for the region is largely rhetorical and unlikely to solve any of the aforementioned core issues. Other than promising future adjustments to force posture, American leaders have not outlined clear, common, regional objectives or shown any interest in trailblazing towards a long-term solution.

This essay, on the other hand, argues that America should take a much more proactive role in pursuit of a peaceful and balanced end-state. A SCS strategy of sustainable engagement would focus on facilitating resolution of sovereignty issues and promoting equitable resource distribution. Such a strategy would seek to build partner capacity to more effectively and efficiently secure the maritime commons, while realistically engaging China as a regional power and hedging against its long-term intentions. The need to energize U.S. efforts in the SCS is acute—the geopolitical and economic stakes for 21st century America overwhelm the anemic engagement to date.

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