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U.S. Approach Destabilizing South China Sea

Mar 06 , 2017
  • Zhang Xinbo

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The Trump administration and American think tanks have repeatedly accused China of “militarizing” the South China Sea, and the first US aircraft-carrier combat group was dispatched to the area since the South China Sea arbitration launched by the previous Philippines administration. Going conspicuously against China-ASEAN endeavors to pacify regional conditions through diplomacy, such words and deeds are not only detrimental to US leadership, but also will further sabotage regional peace and stability.

Recent US words and deeds regarding the South China Sea can be roughly divided into two categories: One is creating tensions by sensationalizing such themes as “militarization”. On Feb. 9 and Feb. 10, unnamed US officials, US Pacific Command and Department of Defense claimed that an American P-3C ASW aircraft ran into a PLA Air Force plane over the Huangyan Island on Feb. 8. The American aircraft was described as carrying out “routine operations” in “international air space”, while the PLAAF plane was accused of “unsafe interaction”, indicating that the latter was intentionally challenging the former’s “legitimate operations”. On Feb. 21, Reuters quoted an anonymous US official as saying China would soon finish construction of more than 20 infrastructure facilities on Yongshu, Zhubi and Meiji reefs, which may be used to store long-range surface-to-air missiles, showing an obvious intention to hype up the so-called Chinese militarization of the South China Sea.

The second approach: Seeking to deter China militarily. As of now, the Trump administration has not made openly provocative moves against China in the South China Sea. Yet the tendency of military deterrence is evident, especially as it sent the first aircraft-carrier combat group to patrol the South China Sea since the arbitration. It is also worth notice that, so far, the Trump administration has declared no position on sovereignty over South China Sea features. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer even indicated disputed features are “international territories, which means the Trump administration has not formally confirmed the consistent stance of previous administrations.

The aforementioned remarks and actions of the Trump administration are irresponsible and inopportune. Since the outcome of the arbitration was released in July, related parties have demonstrated restraint and achieved a “soft landing” of the once tense situation in order to prevent things from getting out of control. Instead of taking the lead in enforcing the so-called “ultimate arbitration”, the US made an abrupt break from its intimidating pre-arbitration military pressures, and withdrew the two aircraft-carriers from the South China Sea before the ruling was announced. China and the Philippines came together for all-round improvement in bilateral ties, with both putting aside the arbitration, restarting consultations over South China Sea disputes, and continuously promoting military and security cooperation. China’s relations with Vietnam and Malaysia have also seen further consolidation and upgrade. Additionally, China-ASEAN consultation over a code of conduct in the South China Sea has made significant headway, with both parties vowing to come up with a framework draft by mid-year. The Trump administration has made it clear it would pursue a “constructive relationship” with China. But its other words and deeds contradict that pledge, and are not conducive to building trust between the two governments. The Trump administration’s ambiguous, sometimes self-contradictory, words and deeds have also thrown its allies and partners in the area in confusion. The new uncertainty will surely not promote regional peace and stability.

To prevent tensions from resurging in the South China Sea, preserve stability and prosperity in the area, and create a win-win future, the US government should act more responsibly regarding this matter. First, it should work with China to build mechanisms for the two countries’ strategic communication as soon as possible, not only to establish guidelines for both in dealing with the South China Sea issue at the highest level, but also to enhance strategic, legal dialogue at the working levels. Second, the US should lower the frequency and forcefulness of military activities in the South China Sea and avoid stimulating Chinese sensitivities. Meanwhile, the US military should promote trust-building with its Chinese counterpart, faithfully implement corresponding mechanisms and agreements, and study and facilitate deeper bilateral exchanges and cooperation. Third, while reiterating its own position on the South China Sea issue, the US should more explicitly state it takes no position on sovereignty regarding the South China Sea, and that it supports the diplomatic efforts China and ASEAN countries have made, so as to highlight its impartiality and regain moral high ground.

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