Ultimately, it may take a crisis for the U.S.-China relationship to reach a stable equilibrium. But in the current context, I believe the doom-laden scenario of a U.S.-China naval clash in the South China Sea to be remote. The greater risk is that China will use U.S. FoN operations to justify an overtly military phase to the island construction project.
BEIJING -- Washington needs to state and re-state that what it is determined to defend is the global commons, not its naval supremacy in the South China Sea. The former wins high ground in the court of international opinion. The latter may generate headlines for the grandstand wanting to see U.S.-Chinese rivalry, but it will likely result in a limited alliance and set the region down a zero-sum track.
The prevailing mood among China-watchers in 2014 was one of anxiety and skepticism. The year began in the shadow of Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. Economic concerns quickly took over: by February the property market seemed on the verge of an epic collapse thanks to the previous year's sharp monetary tightening. At midyear the worry was that an endless anti-corruption campaign had caused government sclerosis, making it impossible to get anything done. And by October, as the Communist Party held its law-focused Fourth Plenum, many bemoaned both the lack of evident progress on the economic reforms outlined at the prior year's Third Plenum and the Party's unwillingness to let its power be constrained by Western-style rule of law.