Aerial view from 1995 of a Vietnamese garrison on one of the Spratly Islands. China and Southeast Asian nations have disputed sovereignty over the largely-uninhabited islands since the 1960s. (FILM)
Credit: Romeo Gacad

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — They are mostly just tiny specks of uninhabited rock spread out over 772,000 miles of the South China Sea.

They bear the names given to them by European cartographers, Spratly, Paracel, and Scarborough Shoal, although the neighboring Asian countries all have their own names for them. They are the most hotly contested islands on earth, and this summer the international heat has been rising with potential problems for the United States.

The respected International Crisis Group has warned that armed conflict over these islands and shoals is ever more likely and, indeed, has happened before.

In January 1974, I watched as the shell-holed ships of the South Vietnamese navy crept back to the port of Danang after an encounter with the Chinese navy in the Paracels. The Saigon government had sent a small detachment of troops to the islands, to which the Chinese reacted violently, sinking South Vietnamese ships and damaging others.

As Saigon was falling in the spring of 1975, hardly anyone noticed that Hanoi sent warships out to the Paracels to plant a Viet Cong flag, thereby sticking a finger in the eye of Hanoi’s great benefactor, China.

Few atolls are as widely contested as the Spratlys, claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and possibly Taiwan. Recently China, which insists on sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, has reinforced its military garrisons and declared a new prefecture called Sansha, which has a mayor and 45 deputies to the People’s Congress, and claims jurisdiction over the Spratlys, the Paracels and the Macclesfield Bank.

Vietnam recently passed a law that asserted its sovereignty over both the Paracels and the Spratlys, basing its claim on French administration of the islands dating from 1933 when Vietnam was a French colony.

Not to be left out, the Philippines stepped up its claim on the Scarborough Shoal, also claimed by China, saying that hundreds of new ships and planes would be purchased to defend Manila’s claim.

More from GlobalPost: Why all the fuss in the South China Sea?

Nobody cared much about these scattered islands and rocks until it appeared that oil and gas might be in the offing, and now national pride has been engaged.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino said that his country would not back down to Chinese threats.

“If someone entered your yard and told you he owned it, would you agree?” he asked.

Well, you might if you were facing the overwhelming power of China, the regional top dog that seems as determined as Aquino to have its way. And this is where the United States comes in. The US has not taken a position on who owns what, but has said that disputes must be resolved peacefully and diplomatically rather than by force. The United States has by far the most powerful navy in the Pacific, and the smaller claimants to the South China Sea islands are hoping the US Navy will act as regional policeman, shielding them from Chinese bullying.

President Barack Obama’s famous “pivot” to the Pacific is now on the line. Should the United States simply stand by and let China take all of the disputed islands, it would lose credibility in the region and around the world. Yet China has refused to negotiate the fate of the islands, and is building up its power to project force.

As it is with China’s non-negotiable claim over Taiwan, this is a moment for American steadfastness as well as flexibility and delicacy in its dealings with the power of China. In Taiwan’s case, America recognizes that there is only one China, but says that re-integration with the mainland should be mutually agreed upon and free from force.

In the case of conflicting claims in the South China Sea, the United States should insist that China come to the negotiating table and commit to international arbitration as to who owns what. This will not be easy, and will entail a nuanced approach. Some, such as Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute, have suggested that as a first step the United States should cut off military-to-military dialogue “until it gets answers” on how large China’s military garrisons on the disputed islands may be.

“The US should consider postponing future annual Security and Economic Dialogues, “ he says.

This would be the wrong approach. Military-to-military dialogue is the first thing that gets suspended when the United States wants to get tough with China and it’s always been a mistake. It is very helpful to have our military and China’s talking to each other, and it would be nose cutting rather than face saving to postpone security and economic dialogue.

It is in everybody’s interest to keep China talking, to engage it as much as possible, not only in coming to an agreement in the South China Sea but in other potential sore points as well. To suspend dialogue only empowers China’s hawks and weakens its doves.   

More from GlobalPost: Report: South China Sea disputes are intensifying

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