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Tensions Are Under Control in the South China Sea

May 05 , 2016
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

In the past several months, the U.S. military has visibly ratcheted up its posture in the South China Sea. Last May, a U.S. P-8A Poseidon flew over China’s islands in the South China Sea with a journalist onboard to conduct live reporting. It happened again in July, only this time it was the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, onboard the aircraft and that single reconnaissance mission lasted seven hours. Three months later, guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen came very close to one of China’s Nansha Islands. In December, two U.S. B-52 bombers flew close to China’s Nansha Islands. This was followed by the entry of another guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur into waters within 12 nautical miles of China’s Zhongjian Island in the Xisha Islands in January. Last month, the John C. Stennis Strike Group sailed into the so-called disputed waters in the South China Sea. Now the US Defense Secretary Ash Carter confirmed recently that the US and the Philippines had already conducted joint patrols. Clearly, the United States is deliberately showing off its muscle to intimidate China in the South China Sea.

The United States claims that it does not take a position on sovereignty disputes regarding those islands in the South China Sea. Its military actions, however, prove otherwise. By using “freedom of navigation” as a pretext, the U.S. has been directly challenging China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and siding with the Philippines and other claimants against China. It has moved from behind the scenes to center stage and become deeply involved in these disputes.

The U.S. knows full well that it is impossible to deter China from defending its rights in the South China Sea. By deploying military assets on top of a series of diplomatic and public opinion campaigns, Washington hopes to pressure China into accepting a settlement of the disputes that suits the U.S. But that is apparently a miscalculated move. These actions go against not only the DOC, a document signed by China and all ASEAN members on the settlement of disputes in the South China Sea, but also the dual-track approach advocated by China. Naturally, these actions have been vehemently criticized by the Chinese government.

Apart from backing up the Philippines, the U.S. is also trying to form some kind of a coalition by inviting Japan and other allies or partners outside the region to join its patrols in the South China Sea to double the pressure on China. Before each military action, relevant information would invariably get leaked to the media and widely reported, creating a sense of imminent crisis or threat posed by an increasingly “aggressive” China that wants to “militarize” the South China Sea. In this way, the U.S. gets to keep the situation looking flammable in the South China Sea and to supply ammunition to the “China threat” theory.

Despite all the media hype about potential military confrontation and armed conflicts in the region, it is unlikely that they are the intended result of the U.S. military action. While the U.S. would like to hold back China’s development by singling out the maritime disputes in the South China Sea and making it a regional flashpoint, the global dimension and comprehensive nature of China-U.S. relations suggest there is little possibility that the South China Sea issue could dominate the course of the relations.

For China and the U.S., the importance of cooperation outweighs competition. The U.S. is playing a dangerous game. Though the aim is to counter China’s growing strength, the U.S. can’t afford to see the hawks take over at home and risk losing control over tensions in the South China Sea. China is an indispensable partner for the U.S. in solving key global and regional issues. Cooperation between China and the U.S. serves the fundamental interests of both countries and the need for peace and development in the wider world.

In addition, despite their serious divide on the South China Sea issue, China and the U.S. do share one thing in common. Both advocate a negotiated settlement of the disputes. Moreover, even though frictions do occur from time to time between China and the U.S., there are bilateral mechanisms to prevent those frictions from spinning out of control. For instance, the MOU on Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters the two sides announced in 2014 provides a code of conduct for effective and normal communication between the two navies. Up till now, Chinese and U.S. naval vessels have been able to act in a professional and rules-based manner, which is also critical for avoiding miscalculation and accidents as well as keeping the South China Sea stable.

Based on the above analysis, to advance its rebalancing strategy, the U.S. will continue to meddle in the South China Sea issue, using its political, diplomatic, public opinion and even military tools to challenge China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests to build obstacles to China’s development. But it will limit the scale and intensity of such action so as not to upset the cooperation between the two sides on critical issues. It is also hard to imagine that the U.S. would ever take a high risk and pay a heavy price for other countries’ interests.

At their latest summit meeting in March, President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama agreed to manage differences constructively and avoid misunderstanding, miscalculation and escalation of tensions. So long as both sides stick to these common understandings, the situation in the South China Sea will remain stable and the disputes will stay under control and away from conflict or war.

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