The seeds of conflict between China and United States have been sown, as insecurity and uncertainty surround the region popularly known as the South China Sea. From being an important transportation pathway for East Asia’s and U.S naval commercial traffic, to the heightened tensions that surround it due to disputes regarding ownership of islands, South China Sea is an area that cannot be ignored by the policy makers of United States.

Taking into account Beijing’s increasing sphere of influence in this area, Washington’s policy makers drifted their attention to the South China Sea to address the challenges and opportunities posed. Having observed the persistent reclamation efforts by China on the several reefs in the Spartly Islands, senior U.S officials unable to mask their discomfort deemed it as downright outrageous. A resilient response was issued by Chinese officials as a result. This message was loud and clear: ‘We will not back down and we are determined to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity.’ This situation has placed the two countries at a confrontational position on the chessboard. On one hand stands the not so gracious United States engaged in a focused strategic effort to gain control of the South China Sea, a work aimed at sustaining its presence in Asia and trampling upon Beijing’s ambitious goals. On the other hand, are the mighty Chinese who are not intimidated by the issue or the criticisms posed by Washington on this matter.

The goals of President Xi Jinping became lucid ever since the Chinese ambitions to build a Silk Road economic belt through central Asia and maritime Silk Road through South China Sea and Indian Ocean were revealed. With these initiatives it was clear that One Belt One road initiative was similar to a Chinese grand strategy that assimilated domestic policies of economic reformation and enhanced international goals of China’s economic and diplomatic influence. But Beijing’s South China Sea policy differs strikingly with its peaceful one belt one road initiative which has hampered its relations with not only United States but also its neighbors. China’s relations with Philippines and Vietnam are in a vulnerable state due to standoff with Manila over contested Scarborough Shoal and in Hanoi due to the placement of oil rig in contested Paracel Islands. The ongoing tensions will be harmful to the long term foreign-policy interests of China.

Mitigating the cloud of uncertainty and uneasiness that surround the relationship due to this pertinent issue, is vital to both regional and global peace and prosperity. Strategic clarity regarding the claims of both Washington and Beijing regarding the South China Sea with a clear demarcation on what is deemed as an acceptable proposition on both sides is the only long term solution for this problem.

The first and foremost step that Washington must undertake is to simplify its message involving the Chinese activities in this area and focus on its vital interests in South China Sea. United Sates has two vital interest regarding this area primarily regarding China’s usage of unprovoked force against claimants of this region and in its own freedom of navigation (FON). Freedom of navigation refers to the areas that United States navy can access which are outside the lawfully established territorial waters surrounding islands. Perhaps the most misleading aspect of U.S policy is to warn China of obstructing commercial shipping routes in South China Sea, an action that China has not undertaken. On the other hand, Washington must also focus on preventing sustained use of force by China in the South China Sea. A Catch 22 situation emerges where a policy of restraint and engagement must be adopted by United States simultaneously.

In this situation, International Law comes in handy where U.S must make it lucid that China’s claims must strictly abide by it and also encourage China to clarify its claims regarding the Exclusive Economic Zone. A clear definitive statement issued by China that it does not wish to resort to force to remove other claimants will be a healthy step to mitigate Washington’s suspicions.

The issue of South China Sea cannot be ignored and must be part of the official rhetoric when the president of China and United States meet in September. Elimination of the seeds of conflict is crucial as they have the power to grow rapidly into an irreversible conflagration between the two mighty powers.