How the United States has treated maritime disputes in East Asia over the last 40 years owes much to a little-known cable that was drafted in the waning hours of December 31, 1970. On that night, Chinese patrol boats were shadowing an American oil exploration ship, the Gulftrex, in the disputed waters of the East China Sea. In Washington, a small group of officials from the U.S. Departments of State and Defense gathered to discuss how the United States should handle the situation if it escalated.
At the time, the United States was still militarily engaged in South Vietnam; and some officials feared that the Gulftrex could turn into another Puebloincident (in which North Korea seized an American surveillance ship and imprisoned its crew). After a lengthy debate, the decision was made not to use U.S. forces to protect the ship, since it had already been warned that it would be sailing in disputed waters; and a cable was sent to U.S. Pacific Command. Underlying that decision was an assumption that the United States would remain neutral in the region’s maritime disputes. In fact, American policy was to “not only be one of scrupulous noninvolvement, but of active discouragement.”
For decades thereafter, the cable’s underlying assumption set the pattern for a hands-off U.S. policy towards such maritime disputes in the region, including the South China Sea. The United States would not take sides in the disputes, but would encourage the countries involved in them to resolve their conflicts peacefully.
On Tuesday, it seemed that Washington was about to change that policy. A Pentagon official revealed that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had requested options for asserting the freedom of navigation through the South China Sea. Those options included sending American ships and planes within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of Chinese-held islands in the South China Sea. There was precedence for this. The United States similarly showed the flag in the Gulf of Sidra when Libya claimed those waters and in the Persian Gulf when Iran preyed on international shipping during the 1980s. A visible American military presence near the Spratly Islands would also help steady U.S. allies and partners in the region.
But why was such a major policy shift necessary at all? Part of the answer lies in China’s…