(The Washington Post) BEIJING — Hundreds of rocky islands, islets, sandbanks, reefs and cays lie scattered across Asia’s eastern waters, unimportant-looking to the naked eye but significant enough to spark what may be the most worrying deterioration in U.S.-China relations in decades.
China’s military rise, and its increasingly assertive claims to sovereignty over these largely uninhabited lumps of rock, coral and sand, have set it on a possible collision course with its neighbors, which also make various claims on the archipelagos, and with the United States, which has important alliances with three of the rival claimants and would be obliged to defend them in the event of an attack.
As Chinese and Vietnamese ships ram each other in the contested waters, and Chinese and Japanese fighter jets play games of chicken in Asia’s disputed skies, the risk of military escalation is growing. Even more significantly, the standoff is generating bad blood between Washington and Beijing and could torpedo cooperation on important global issues, including the Middle East, climate change and nuclear proliferation.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will visit Beijing on Wednesday and Thursday for the sixth annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue. And while Washington has been focused more on Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Russia, some say the U.S.-China relationship is facing its stiffest test since President Richard M. Nixon traveled to Mao Zedong’s China in 1972.