The Sun (Malaysia)

The US and China are playing with matches

- BY ERIC S. MARGOLIS Comments: letters@thesundail­

RUSSIAN and US warplanes are flying way too close to one another over Syria and may soon, in Iraq. Drones are all over the place. An accident is inevitable. Airliners are increasing­ly at risk over the Middle East. US troops may enter Syria.

Last week the missile destroyer, USS Lassen, openly challenged the maritime exclusion zone drawn by China around its latest militarise­d atoll, Subi reef, in the South China Sea – a sort of poor man’s aircraft carrier that hugely annoys Washington and its Asian allies.

China is building other man-made islands by dredging submerged atolls. Japan and China are at dagger’s drawn over the disputed Senkaku (Daiyou in Chinese) Islands. The Philippine­s, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan all have overlappin­g claims in the region. China rejects all claims.

Beijing says the new atolls are only for civilian use. The raised reefs are a key part of China’s claim to 80% of the South China Sea, a key conduit for its trade, oil imports, and rich fishery zones. Suddenly, bits of rock like the Paracels, the Spratleys, and Senkakus have become key bits of geography.

America’s Asian allies are too scared of China to do much about its takeover of the South China Sea – which Beijing calls “the 9 dash zone”. So the Asians are all hiding behind Uncle Sam’s apron, hoping the US will face down China.

Who is right in this dispute? As a former student of internatio­nal law, here’s my view: Washington is on the right side of internatio­nal law.

China is wrong to lay exclusive claims to the atolls and China Sea. Its claims are based on flimsy historic documents and the finding of suspicious religious relics, a dubious method used by Israel to justify its land seizures. China is doing just what Israel has done in the West Bank, using salami tactics and seizure of high ground to back claims by creating facts.

Beijing is mulling declaring an air defence identifica­tion zone over the South China Sea, though it lacks radar to monitor the area. Such zones would sharply raise tensions with the US, South Korea and Japan.

The US is right that China’s aggressive intrusions into the seas around it are unacceptab­le and a major threat to freedom of the seas. Beijing is very sensitive to freedom of navigation in its region and potential threats posed to its essential imports of oil and raw materials. This is a vital Chinese national interest.

Fair enough. But the US has egregiousl­y violated internatio­nal law by invading Iraq, a major crime, and trying to overthrow Syria’s legitimate government. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

As in Syria, aircraft from all sides are flying dangerousl­y close, warships are playing chicken, and threats are growing hotter. The China Seas are hardly worth risking war when diplomacy holds the answers. Be- sides, China would be unwise to go to war against the US 7th Fleet.

If war did erupt, might China’s new ally Russia get involved? Might India decide to go after rival China’s Middle East oil lifeline? Would Vietnam and China fight, as they did in 1979? Would an angry China finally invade Taiwan? Lots of dangers.

A good way to calm things down is for the US to stop buzzing China’s coasts and provoking North Korea. Imagine if Chinese warships appeared off New York City?

The US must learn to lower its profile in Asian waters and China must do deep breathing and use Confucian wisdom.

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