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Foreign Policy

The U.S. Has Gone Too Far in the South China Sea Dispute

Jun 15 , 2015

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue was held this year at a highly sensitive time for an issue that has regional and global security implications, particularly in the South China Sea, as the United States continues to raise its voice in putting all the blame on China for the so-called tensions there. Analysts watched closely how the dynamics between China and the U.S. would play out and what it will mean eventually for the security outlook in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific.

The “Unfair Judge”

Following the U.S. reconnaissance flight over China’s islands in the South China Sea with a CNN crew onboard, which broadcast on the spot the ongoing construction work on those islands, an array of successive accusations and coercive statements against China were made by Ash Carter, a technocrat-turned Defense Secretary appointed only three months ago. Carter took his reproach up a notch by saying that China’s “pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea” is “more than all other claimants combined…and more than in the entire history of the region”; that “China is out of step with both the international rules and norms”; that “the United States is deeply concerned about the prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict”; and that “turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty.”

In order to sound just, he included in his speech a call for “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants”, reasserting America’s resolve to “continue to protect freedom of navigation and overflight” and pressing for the conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea between China and ASEAN. Carter also announced at the dialogue meeting that the Pentagon will launch a new Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. According to hawkish Republican Senator John McCain, who currently serves as the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the initiative entails a provision of US$425 million over five years to countries including the Philippines and Vietnam for “equipment, supplies, training and small-scale military construction” against “China’s territorial challenges.”

Lack of Justification

The recent U.S. rhetoric and action on the South China Sea reveal Washington’s double intentions. One is to find support for its “rebalancing act” by exaggerating the situation in the South China Sea to prompt joint action against China by its neighbors, especially those having territorial disputes with China, like the Philippines and Japan. The other intention is to bash China to “settle the score” after having seriously miscalculated the situation on the China-proposed AIIB, reflecting its heightened suspicion against the rise of China and worries that U.S. supremacy could be at risk.

Without any legitimate motive, the U.S. keeps pushing its way into the South China Sea disputes on the fragile grounds of so-called international rules and freedom of navigation. However, the author doubts if such excuses could truly convince anyone well-informed of the situation. First, as a non-claimant state, the U.S. has devoted disproportionate attention to the issue and shown a clear favor in its allies. Second, the U.S. might want to explain why it still has not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea before accusing China of ignoring international law. Third, for the U.S. itself, “freedom of navigation” actually means “freedom to dominate the waters, lead the Asia-Pacific and challenge China’s sovereignty.” Fourth, extending its arm all the way across the Pacific Ocean into the South China Sea, an area very much at China’s doorstep, can only be described as hegemonic. On my most recent trip to the U.S. for think tank exchanges, I made this point as clearly as I could: The U.S. does not have any moral justification whatsoever to interfere in the South China Sea disputes.

Rightful Opposition from China

The U.S.’ tough pressure has met a solid and unyielding response from a confident China. On May 26, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Director-General on boundary and maritime affairs gave a written interview to Xinhua News Agency to dispel foreign misunderstanding regarding China’s policy and actions on the South China Sea. On May28, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai argued firmly against U.S. attempts to manipulate the issue, stating that “the U.S. has overreacted to the situation and is escalating the situation and taking sides in the territorial disputes in the region.” He said, “We are not talking about the Gulf of Mexico. We are not talking about the coast off California. We are not even talking about Hawaii. We are talking about the South China Sea, which is so close to China.” On May 30, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson again rejected Carter’s criticism for its lack of factual and legal basis. On May 31, Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff Gen. Sun Jianguo spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue on China’s pursuit of a “community of shared destiny”. He particularly touched upon China’s defense and South China Sea policies, emphasizing that what China does is legitimate and justified and aimed at strengthening security in the South China Sea, not otherwise.

Consequences for the U.S.

In a broader sense, what is unfolding in the South China Sea between China and the U.S. is simply evidence that the U.S. is eager to reassert its supremacy in the Asia-Pacific as it shifts toward a new regional security order. Such an attempt, however, could throw the U.S. off its own strategic balance.

First, the U.S. may lose balance between its allies and China. Countries like the Philippines will not miss this opportunity to reap gains at the expense of China-U.S. relations. Ultimately, the U.S. could lose China’s partnership and find itself in a new strategic dilemma.

Second, the U.S. may lose balance between its two strategic focuses: the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. When asked whether the “rebalance” requires U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, McCain could only say that if the U.S. chose to do so, the world would question its ability and credibility.

Third, the U.S. may lose balance between responding to the traditional challenge of the rise of emerging powers and the non-traditional challenge of Islamic extremism. McCain admitted that the U.S. is losing in the fight against IS and stressed the necessity for the Obama Administration to send ground troops to turn the tide around.

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