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Reckless Provocation is Counterproductive

Nov 04 , 2015
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

On 27 October, the U.S.S. Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a move that has caused an uproar. The Chinese government has unequivocally pointed out that this reckless operation of the US constitutes a severe provocation against China in both political and military terms, and as such, China has lodged warning and protest against the US. In the meanwhile, the Chinese people, who are understandably affronted by the US maneuver, regards this as a presumptuous act of bullying and hegemony.

The US attempts to justify itself on two grounds, neither of which is tenable. First, the US claims that China’s reclamation undertakings will change the status quo of the South China Sea. However, China’s sovereignty over the reefs in question at the South China Sea goes way back to history. Before the 1970’s, reference to any atlas-delineated and used by countries like the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and Japan would show these reefs as Chinese sovereign territory, and even the domestic maps used in current claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam indicated the same. As such, China’s territorial sovereignty over relevant islands and reefs is self-evident, and has nothing to do with the reclamation activities.

Second, the US claimed that China is building up military facilities on the islands and reefs, and thus threatens the “freedom of navigation” at the South China Sea. This pretext is way out of proportion. Experts on international maritime laws pointed out that the South China Sea spans a vastness of 3.5 million square kilometers, while the US chooses none but the waters that are in the proximity of the Subi reefs, which smacks of a deliberate act to provoke China under the name “freedom of navigation”. Furthermore, I cannot help but challenge the logics behind the allegation that military facilities on one or two isolated islands in the middle of the sea would pose severe threats to navigation on the sea: if and when a conflict should break out, these facilities would vanish in one fell swoop in a bomb attack. What’s more, the facilities built by China are primarily for civilian purposes, meant for maritime rescue operations, disaster reduction, and maritime scientific research, such as piers and beacon houses. Besides, China has announced on many occasions that these civilian facilities are open to all foreign ships, and every one stands to benefit. So to be fair, China’s island construction activities will do a service, rather than disservice, to the “freedom of navigation”.

What is the US’ motive behind this provocation? Some have interpreted it as a deliberate and calculated move to complicate the situation, with a two-fold objective. First and foremost, it wants to test how China will respond, and map out the next move accordingly. Second, mounting tensions over the South China Sea may contain China’s growth, and other claimants in the region will be emboldened to take a more assertive stance against China, a scenario that is poised to bolster the US “pivot to Asia” strategy.

The encroachment is well planned and elaborate, yet it is based on a misguided calculation, and may incur adverse consequences. It leads China to believe that the US has no intention to honor its commitment, as it alleged that it would not take side on the South China Sea issue. But this incident shows that the US not only takes the side against China, it even goes so far as to stand at the opposite frontline and lend its weight. The Sydney Morning Herald said that US claim to take no side ”is sophistry… a challenge to China’s plans in the region”.

As a direct repercussion of this incident, many Chinese people no longer have positive opinions about the US. Antagonism against the US has even been on the rise, with people having taken to the Internet to vent their anger against the US’ provocation. The reckless move by the US reveals its true strategic intention, and thus pits itself against the Chinese people.

When it comes to global reactions, the US claimed united support, but the fact is otherwise. Even among its allies, Australian and Japan took a measured tone. Australia said that it is “not involved in the current US activities in the South China Sea”, and Japan made it clear that it has no plan, no capacity, nor the intention to engage in such activities. So except for the explicit support from the Philippines, very few US allies have ever lent their voice in support of the US. A Russian scholar hit the nail on the head when he said that if the US intends to make this kind of military operation the norm, it threatens to escalate into a confrontation between the US and China, which may spiral from a regional conflict into one of global scale. The US approach is too excessive and dangerous. Who else is going to get involved? What is transpiring around the incident suggests that US’ allies are more inclined to diverge rather than converge with the US on some policy options, and its allies are no longer at its beck and call. The age of hegemonism is consigned to the past, and any country that moves in reckless disregard of that will face the consequences at its own peril.

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