S.China Sea can be more risky than trade

Global Times US Edition - - ASIANREVIEW - By Li Kaisheng The au­thor is a re­search fel­low at the In­sti­tute of International Re­la­tions, the Shanghai Acad­emy of So­cial Sciences. opin­ion@glob­al­times.com.cn

Since the se­cond half of 2016, the South China Sea has re­stored its tran­quil­ity. How­ever, the US still sends its war­ships to sail within 12 nau­ti­cal miles of the is­lands that are Chi­nese ter­ri­tory not only in the South China Sea but also in China’s other seas. It is the re­sult of in­evitable fric­tion be­tween the two ma­jor coun­tries that are adapt­ing to each other in East Asia and there is no need to make a fuss about it.

But on Septem­ber 30, US Navy de­stroyer USS De­catur came within 12 nau­ti­cal miles of Chi­nese is­lands in the South China Sea and was warded off by China’s war­ships. The en­counter trig­gered po­lit­i­cal noise.

On Oc­to­ber 4, US Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence de­liv­ered his speech on the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy to­ward China. He men­tioned the event and said: “De­spite such reck­less ha­rass­ment, the United States Navy will con­tinue to fly, sail and op­er­ate wher­ever international law al­lows and our na­tional in­ter­ests de­mand. We will not be in­tim­i­dated. We will not stand down.

Apart from the South China Sea dis­putes, Pence’s speech is full of ac­cu­sa­tions against China, in­clud­ing di­a­tribes against do­mes­tic and for­eign af­fairs. On the one hand, Pence said, “We want a con­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship with Bei­jing,” and on the other hand, he talked of con­fronting China. Washington’s moves against China were in the na­ture of trade hege­mony and bul­ly­ing. How­ever, it in­tended to turn the US war­ships, which ap­peared at China’s doorstep, into a new sym­bol of re­sist­ing Bei­jing’s so-called bul­ly­ing.

Some me­dia out­lets and crit­ics also hyped up the sit­u­a­tion in the South China Sea. Some claimed that China is de­ter­mined to con­front the US and to ex­pel the lat­ter out of the West­ern Pa­cific. Some stressed China’s ter­rito- rial dis­putes with other coun­tries and claimed that China wants to dom­i­nate the South China Sea. Some re­lated the event with other China-US dis­putes and spec­u­lated if a “new Cold War” is com­ing. Some said that it is time for the US to pick a side in the South China Sea dis­pute and en­cour­age its al­lies and part­ners to join the so-called free nav­i­ga­tion.

In fact, the South China Sea has en­joyed its tran­quil­ity over the past two years. China, the Philip­pines and Viet­nam, the three ma­jor claimant coun­tries, have reached broad con­sen­sus in man­ag­ing dis­putes and ex­plor­ing co­op­er­a­tion. The Philip­pines pro­moted the prepa­ra­tion of joint ex­ploita­tion with China, and Bei­jing agreed to push for­ward con­sul­ta­tions on the Code of Con­duct (COC) in the South China Sea. It has been proved that with­out in­ter­ven­tion, China and other rel­e­vant coun­tries can un­der­stand each other and pro­tect peace and sta­bil­ity in the re­gion.

But such con­di­tion isn’t in line with Washington’s in­ter­ests. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion treats the North Korean nu­clear is­sue as the top pri­or­ity of its East Asia pol­icy, and it never gives up in­ter­ven­tion in the South China Sea.

As the China-US trade con­flict is likely to es­ca­late into a com­pre­hen­sive strate­gic con­fronta­tion, the South China Sea has be­come a card in Washington’s hand again. This sums up the rea­son be­hind the en­counter of Chi­nese and Amer­i­can mil­i­tary ships in the South China Sea.

China and the US should now re­sist the temp­ta­tion of es­ca­lat­ing the trade dis­pute into a strate­gic con­fronta­tion. Cur­rent China-US re­la­tions are un­doubt­edly the worst since the two coun­tries es­tab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions. But in­stead of fight­ing for hege­mony, the ba­sis of the two coun­tries’ con­flicts is their dif­fer­ent un­der­stand­ing of international rules, or­ders and global gov­er­nance. There is no need to avoid these con­flicts, but it’s more dan­ger­ous to ex­ag­ger­ate them.

How­so­ever se­vere the trade con­fronta­tion is, it is not a mil­i­tary con­flict. But the South China Sea con­cerns sovereignty and mil­i­tary is­sues which are highly sen­si­tive and may even trig­ger armed con­flicts. If the China-US con­fronta­tion is ex­ag­ger­ated un­lim­it­edly, it would only lead to more sim­i­lar en­coun­ters of war­ships and both sides will fall into the Thucy­dides trap.

Ex­pe­ri­ence proves that sovereignty dis­putes can be shelved. If each side has a dif­fer­ent un­der­stand­ing of free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion, they should re­sort to pol­i­tics and law, not show of force. If the hard­won tran­quil­ity in the South China Sea is de­stroyed again, the re­gion’s sta­bil­ity and peace will be sac­ri­ficed. The big­gest vic­tim would be the coun­tries in the re­gion them­selves.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Liu Rui/GT

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