Clear mist of con­fu­sion over South China Sea

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

The re­port of China de­ploy­ing a mis­sile sys­tem on Yongx­ing Is­land, part of the Xisha Is­lands in the South China Sea came as a “sur­prise”, with the Western world cit­ing it as fur­ther ev­i­dence of China’s “di­rect mil­i­tary provo­ca­tion” to other coun­tries and a threat to re­gional peace and or­der. TheUnited States ex­pects to hold “very se­ri­ous talks” with China, and its al­lies have ex­pressed con­cern over the de­vel­op­ment. This is quite in­trigu­ing. In the past, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity mostly fo­cused on the dis­putes over theNan­sha Is­lands in the South China Sea which largely in­volved China and the Philip­pines. And de­spite Bei­jing’s clarifications and stand, Wash­ing­ton has made its pol­icy very pro-Manila along with its ac­tions in the Asia-Pa­cific, a re­gion that is thou­sands of kilo­me­ters away from its coasts.

As a mat­ter of fact, for sev­eral decades China has used lim­ited de­fense mea­sures on Xisha Is­lands, which it has al­ready an­nounced are its ter­ri­to­rial sea base­line and have noth­ing to do with the so-called mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the South China Sea. There­fore, this is not an in­ten­tional change that China has brought up at this mo­ment. In­stead, theUS’ in­ten­tion to con­fuse be­tween Xisha and Nan­sha seems to be ob­vi­ous and di­rect.

As to the con­fu­sion over “right to self-de­fense” and “mil­i­ta­riza­tion”, Ar­ti­cle 51 of theUNChar­ter en­ti­tles the “inherent right” to self-de­fense toUNmem­bers, and for decades China’s self-de­fense mea­sures on the Xisha Is­lands have not been seen as a con­tro­ver­sial is­sue. But theWest is now try­ing to por­tray it as a con­tro­ver­sial is­sue de­spite the fact that high-level of­fi­cials in theUS or its ally coun­tries have not openly raised it. How­could such self­de­fense mea­sures sud­denly be­come China’s “reck­less step” in­ten­si­fy­ing mil­i­ta­riza­tion in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion?

Speak­ing of mil­i­ta­riza­tion, theUS has de­cided to de­ploy 60 per­cent of its navy and air force in Asia-Pa­cific. Also, it keeps send­ing spy planes and bat­tle­ships on re­con­nais­sance mis­sions in China’s ter­ri­tory, and holds fre­quent joint mil­i­tary drills with its al­lies in the re­gion and con­tin­ues to sell huge amounts of mil­i­tary equip­ment.

Talk­ing about con­fu­sion over “pol­icy” and “ca­pa­bil­ity”, ac­cord­ing toUS me­dia, the mis­siles de­ployed by China on Yongx­ing Is­land have a range of about 200 km and pose “a threat to all forms of civil­ian and mil­i­tary air­craft”. This is an­other ploy of theUS to cre­ate con­fu­sion. China’s self-de­fense mea­sures do not pose a threat to ma­jor sea lanes and air routes in the re­gion, so long as some in­ci­den­tal “in­no­cent pas­sage” does not evolve into a se­ri­ous provoca­tive threat to China’s sovereignty.

TheUS main­tains the most so­phis­ti­cated weaponry sys­tems, de­fen­sive and of­fen­sive, which are de­ployed across the world on the pre­text of de­fend­ing democ­racy, peace and or­der. Why can­not the same logic be ap­plied to China? It should be made clear that in­stead of ca­pa­bil­ity, a “wrong” pol­icy can di­rectly pose a threat to other coun­tries and fa­cil­i­ties. In this re­gard, China has put for­ward a three-point ini­tia­tive to up­hold peace and sta­bil­ity in the South China Sea, and “peace and sta­bil­ity” is just as cru­cial for China to up­hold its sov­er­eign rights, now and in the fu­ture.

Next we come to the con­fu­sion over “stan­dard of mil­i­ta­riza­tion”. Since the Philip­pines and Viet­nam have “mil­i­ta­rized” the oc­cu­pied is­lands, and the weapon sales by and joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with the US con­tinue, why must China’s self-de­fense mea­sures be la­beled a “di­rect mil­i­tary provo­ca­tion”? This is dou­ble stan­dard, which the US uses to firmly con­trol the in­ter­na­tional discourse and tell the world that only China’s ac­tions should be linked to mil­i­ta­riza­tion in the re­gion— akin to a charge of “orig­i­nal sin”.

To cre­ate con­fu­sion over “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion”, US of­fi­cials con­stantly claim to have the right to pro­tect the “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the South China Sea”. This is ridicu­lous. The Chi­nese mil­i­tary has never im­peded civil­ian or com­mer­cial free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the South China Sea. All the same, it is easy for theUS to blame China for the some­what imag­i­nary “threat” it poses to “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the South China Sea” in the hope of con­vinc­ing the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity or cer­tain coun­tries of its ar­gu­ment. How­ever, the point is, it is theUS mil­i­tary’s “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the South China Sea” that could be lim­ited by China once it is per­ceived as a threat to China’s sovereignty.

The con­fu­sion over “chicken or egg first” seems log­i­cal, as it con­cerns which side first changed the orig­i­nal peace, sta­bil­ity and or­der mech­a­nism. The South China Sea had not been an “is­sue” be­fore the 1970s when Viet­nam and the Philip­pines aban­doned their poli­cies, which con­sented to China’s sov­er­eign rights— es­pe­cially af­ter oil and gas were dis­cov­ered in the re­gion.

But de­spite that rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity was main­tained un­til Wash­ing­ton de­cided to “pivot” to Asia, and some coun­tries jumped on to theUS “band­wagon” to cre­ate a se­ries of is­sues lead­ing to a cri­sis. China’s de­trac­tors should know that the coun­try’s so-called as­sertive­ness came later and has re­mained re­ac­tive in na­ture. TheUS seems hell-bent on “re­veal­ing” cer­tain ac­tions of China and la­bel­ing them threats while ig­nor­ing the fact that China did not change nor does it in­tend to change the orig­i­nal mech­a­nism for peace, sta­bil­ity and or­der in the re­gion.

When it comes to con­fu­sion over “con­fi­dence and ca­pa­bil­ity”, there seems to be an in­creas­ing gap be­tweenUS con­fi­dence and its ac­tual ca­pa­bil­ity to dom­i­nate the South China Sea is­sue for its own pur­poses. By un­con­di­tion­ally al­ly­ing with coun­tries, sup­port­ing them with mil­i­tary equip­ment and ad­vice, and blam­ing China for any­thing and ev­ery­thing, theUS seems to tell the world that the South China Sea is­sue is all aboutWash­ing­ton’s con­fi­dence and im­age, with­out con­sid­er­ing how Bei­jing would re­act.

Could this be a sym­bolic war to prop­a­gate Amer­i­can val­ues? What doUS cit­i­zens re­ally want? How­far could theUS’ con­fi­dence lead it in the re­gion? All th­ese ques­tions seem to con­cernUS con­fi­dence. But in a more spe­cific con­text, this could be the nar­ra­tive of a dif­fer­ent story: theUS’ lack of con­fi­dence in deal­ing with a rapidly ris­ing China, which seems a lit­tle more con­fi­dent and mod­er­ate by con­trast.

Fi­nally, China’s poli­cies and ac­tions in the South China Sea have been de­void of the “orig­i­nal sin”. China is a ris­ing power that firmly up­holds its sovereignty, as well as re­gional peace and sta­bil­ity, all of which are equally im­por­tant. Al­though the gen­er­al­iza­tion of the re­gional is­sue, in par­tic­u­lar the over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of China’s ac­tions, could win theUS cer­tain sup­port­ers in the re­gion, di­ver­gences and dif­fer­ences within Amer­ica’s al­lies are emerg­ing. For ex­am­ple, ASEAN lead­ers have re­frained from crit­i­ciz­ing China in the joint state­ment of the US-ASEAN spe­cial lead­ers’ sum­mit.

The dis­putes in the South China Sea may go on, but no coun­try, in­clud­ing China and theUS, can af­ford to­tal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the sit­u­a­tion in the Asia-Pa­cific. So it is time to clear the mist of con­fu­sions over the South China Sea and to main­tain sus­tained peace and sta­bil­ity in the re­gion. The world will not find an over-as­sertive China, and it cer­tainly does not need an un­nec­es­sar­ily im­petu­ousUS.

The au­thor is a lec­turer at the Grad­u­ate School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Yon­sei Univer­sity, Re­pub­lic of Korea.

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