Nav­i­ga­tion free­dom no ex­cuse for in­ter­fer­ence

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

The United States was back again in the South China Sea re­cently, this time with a mus­cle-flex­ing navy fleet in a greater show of strength. The USNavy John C. Sten­nis strike group ex­ited the South China Sea onMarch 6 af­ter six days of de­but “rou­tine op­er­a­tions” since its reg­u­larly sched­uled de­ploy­ment be­gan Jan 15, putting the Asi­aPa­cific re­gion on high alert and leav­ing many won­der­ing what are the sig­nals be­hind the move and what im­pact it will have on re­gional peace and sta­bil­ity.

The first strik­ing point about the US mil­i­tary de­ploy­ment is that it was ac­com­pa­nied by an un­usu­ally high-pro­file me­dia cov­er­age. Un­like the pre­vi­ous nearly un­no­ticed mis­sion, the US Navy spokesper­son, un­named mil­i­tary of­fi­cials and mil­i­tary ex­perts have re­leased awave of in­for­ma­tion both be­fore and af­ter the op­er­a­tion. The care­fully de­signed me­dia cov­er­age ap­par­ently shows the US wanted its “op­er­a­tion” to be trum­peted so that it could en­hance the per­cep­tion of its mil­i­tary pres­ence in the re­gion.

An­other sen­si­tive is­sue is the tim­ing of the US op­er­a­tion. Ten­sions have been ris­ing since the US mil­i­tary sent its ves­sels close to and fle­wits air­craft over China’s is­lands in the South China Sea. Now, the de­ploy­ment of a US air­craft car­rier and es­cort ships— seem­ingly be­cause, as the US claims, “China is mil­i­ta­riz­ing the re­gion to guard its ex­ces­sive ter­ri­to­rial claims”— will heighten the ten­sions. An air­craft car­rier en­ter­ing re­gional wa­ters with­out any rea­son cer­tainly can­not have peace­ful in­ten­tions.

Stick­ing to its stance on its pre­vi­ous ma­neu­vers in the South China Sea, the US has also em­pha­sized that the new op­er­a­tion is rou­tine. The US has claimed its ships and air­craft have been op­er­at­ing freely for decades in theWestern Pa­cific— in­clud­ing the South China Sea. But that does not sound con­vinc­ing.

It is true that the US has long main­tained a strong mil­i­tary pres­ence in the re­gion. But now it is in the process of de­ploy­ing 60 per­cent of its war­ships and mil­i­tary air­craft in the Asia-Pa­cific as part of its “pivot to Asia” pol­icy, which could se­ri­ously af­fect the re­gional bal­ance of power.

More im­por­tantly, the op­er­a­tions and at­ti­tude of the US mil­i­tary are be­com­ing more provoca­tive, hos­tile and ag­gres­sive, as proved by its re­cent in­cur­sions into the wa­ters near China’s is­lands and reefs in the South China Sea. And since it is the US that is ac­tu­ally “mil­i­ta­riz­ing” the South China Sea, China has to adapt its poli­cies to the chang­ing sit­u­a­tion in the re­gion. HowChina will re­spond de­pends large­ly­onUS in­ten­tion­sand­be­hav­ior. If theUS mil­i­tary ves­sel­sandair­craft travel thou­sands of miles just to cre­ate trou­ble, China has the inherent right to self­de­fense as guar­an­teed by the UNChar­teran­dother in­ter­na­tional laws. If theUS mil­i­tary ves­sels and air­craft tran­sit this area in line with in­ter­na­tional law, the ex­er­cise of the free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion is guar­an­teed to ev­ery coun­try un­der the UNCon­ven­tion on the La­wof the Sea. How­ever, even the UNCon­ven­tion on the La­wof the Sea fails to pro­vide ex­plicit reg­u­la­tions on ac­tiv­i­ties in­volv­ing “in­no­cent pas­sage” of war­ships through ter­ri­to­rial seas. More than 40 coun­tries’ do­mes­tic mar­itime laws re­quire for­eign war­ships to give prior no­tice or ob­tain prior au­tho­riza­tion be­fore en­ter­ing their ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters. And it will be base­less if theUS tries to use “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion” as an ex­cuse to in­ter­fere in the re­gional sea dis­putes.

Other re­gional coun­tries— par­tic­u­larly mem­bers of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east AsianNa­tions, many of which may not be will­ing to choose sides— can­not re­main un­af­fected by the ris­ing ten­sions. So, they should play a more re­spon­si­ble and pos­i­tive role to defuse the ten­sions.

TheUS could eas­ily pull out its mil­i­tary from the area af­ter in­cit­ing a con­flict and leav­ing China and other re­gional coun­tries to pay the price for its ac­tions. There­fore, all re­gional coun­tries have to make con­certed ef­forts to main­tain peace in the South China Sea.

The au­thor is a re­search fel­low at the Col­lab­o­ra­tive In­no­va­tion Cen­ter of South China Sea Stud­ies, Nan­jing Univer­sity.

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