When the PRC harassed the US naval survey vessel USNS Impeccable in 2009 and tried to assert that military surveillance inside the PRC EEZ was a violation of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, Captain Pedrozo produced highly important opinions, Close Encounters at Sea: the USNS Impeccable Incident and Preserving Navigational Rights and Freedoms: The Right to Conduct Military Activities in China's Exclusive Economic Zone.
In these documents, Captain Pedrozo made a point of declaring that the USNS Impeccable was not engaged in any sort of anodyne mapping exercises, but was actually conducted military surveillance against PLAN subs, thereby exempting the Impeccable from any UNCLOS obligations to butt out of the PRC EEZ. This argument, judging by the recent dispatch of a PLAN surveillance into the US EEZ during RIMPAC, has apparently won the PRC’s acceptance.
Captain Pedrozo's arguments that the PRC was improperly threatening legal military (not commercial) activities inside the PRC EEZ provided the basis for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's declaration at ASEAN in 2010 that the US had a national interest in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and got the whole "pivot to Asia" ball rolling.
The terminally FUBAR sovereignty issues of the Spratly Islands do receive a thorough parsing, but the main event is the Paracels, the cluster of islands south of Hainan, near Vietnam, completely occupied by the PRC, disputed by Vietnam, and the locale in which the PRC parked the HYSY 981 rig, partly as a signal that the US military presence in the South China Sea was, by Chinese estimation, neither justifiable nor necessary.
Take Whitehouse's declaration that the United States is the protector of the world EEZ regime, add Padrozo's determination that the PRC has no sovereignty or EEZ rights in the South China Sea, and we have a fresh strategic and legal rationale for active US involvement in SCS EEZ disputes.
Or, to put it less charitably, combine dubious US doctrine and bullshit US lawyering (and the predictable assistance of a complaisant Western press and compliant allies) and the United States can unilaterally declare a compelling national interest to intervene in bilateral economic disputes thousands of miles from home...and declare China an outlaw in its own maritime backyard!
That precious core interest in the South China Seas isn't yours, Mr. Chicom. It's America's. Bwahahaha!
Clever...if "clever" is defined as "institutionalizing conflict in the South China Sea instead of resolving it" and "ignoring the fact that national and international forces that cannot be reversed or controlled have been set in motion".
This might not turn out to be the US leadership for which ASEAN is notoriously pining.
Locklear has sought to play down the growing military threat from China as part of efforts to develop closer cooperation with the Chinese military.
The commander’s dovish policies are being opposed by some in the Pentagon and Air Force who are concerned that the conciliatory approach will appease the Chinese at a time when Beijing has made aggressive territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Seas.
The hawk recipe is fighter plane escorts for surveillance aircraft, a recapitulation of the "paramilitarization" of disputes with China (by interposing US military assets between PRC ships and Vietnamese and Philippine vessels) that was proposed by Carlyle Thayer in the South China Sea, a remedy that I think we'll be seeing more and more.
In any case, elements within the US government/think tank universe have developed 1) the legal justification (the Pedrozo analysis) 2) the doctrinal imperative (what I call the Whitehouse Doctrine) and 3) the operational tactics ("paramilitarization") to confront the PRC as an EEZ outlaw in the South China Sea.
How and when this strategy is implemented is now a matter of speculation only. But, as PRC strength waxes and the US government sees its window of opportunity for effective rollback inexorably closing in the South China Sea, I think something will happen sooner rather than later.