By Hu Bo
President Xi Jinping’s meeting with US President Barack Obama provides a rare opportunity for benign interactions to take place that allow for careful review before solutions to ease tensions are possible. In this article, Hu Bo discusses the path to peace in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea has become a primary issue for China-US relations, evident in the fierce and intense struggles over China’s land reclamation in the waters near the Nansha Islands [the Chinese name for the Spratly Islands – ed.], with some voices in both countries calling for military solutions. Tensions in the South China Sea have severely affected China-US ties, sending the bilateral strategic mutual trust into further retreat.
Even if the South China Sea issues are not the main reason for current China-US difficulties, they have been a key catalyst in a broader context. The contentions over the islands reflect a comprehensive competition over power, rules of the game and honour. Thus, there is little hope that either country will make concrete reconciliation.
The United States should create a good environment and ratchet down its diplomatic tones. In other words, if it continues to accuse China, the result will just be the opposite of what Washington wishes.
While still dedicated to preserving regional peace and stability with its neighbourly foreign policy, China has started to pay more attention to balancing “preserving stability” and “preserving rights.” It has become more resolute on sovereignty-related issues. On the other side, the United States regards the South China Sea as an important arena of influence and naturally does not wish to see China expand its presence there, fearing that such a growing presence will be detrimental to US leadership on Asia-Pacific security issues.
Beijing and Washington have major disputes over maritime rules – namely, “innocent passage”, “freedom of navigation” and “passive settlement of international disputes” – and also interpreting the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea.
The United States stresses that it has an absolute freedom of action, including surveillance, monitoring and military exercises in another country’s exclusive zone, whereas China thinks that freedom of navigation should not undermine a nearby country’s safety, and that other countries’ military activities in the zone should be limited.
It’s About Honour
Honour in the arena of the South China Sea is another major factor. Having been a superpower for a long time, America cannot afford to assume a weak stance. But Beijing, with its growing power, is also unable to tolerate US interference at its doorstep.
Raising the stakes in the South China Sea is hardly affordable for either side. A deteriorating external environment will affect China’s peripheral diplomacy and its “Belt and Road” initiatives, while the struggle with China will cost the United States its global presence sooner.
Frankly speaking, there will unlikely be a quick solution to the China-US conflict in the area. Fortunately, a series of risk prevention and control mechanisms have been in place between the two countries.
President Xi Jinping’s upcoming meeting with US President Barack Obama provides a rare opportunity for benign interactions to take place that allow for careful review before solutions to ease tensions are possible.
In a summit meeting, world leaders tend to focus more on exchanging in-depth views, rather than on starting a quarrel. The United States should create a good environment and ratchet down its diplomatic tones. In other words, if it continues to accuse China, the result will just be the opposite of what Washington wishes. China should have a deeper appreciation of how its rise influences its peripheral region and beyond and should explain clearly its objectives in areas such as freedom of navigation and the principles for using military strength. China may also invite the US to conduct joint drills in the South China Sea. The region presents possibilities in jointly preserving maritime safety and regional peace and stability, including anti-piracy, weather forecasts, maritime rescues and navigation passage management.
China has begun to act. In mid-June, Beijing announced that the land reclamation project on some islands and reefs in the South China Sea had almost been completed and that the next step will involve construction of facilities for the public interest, such as a lighthouse, maritime rescue station, meteorological observation station, maritime research centre and first aid service centre.
Seeing China’s goodwill in making its own plans transparent, the United States needs to show reciprocity, for instance, by reducing its frequency of reconnaissance flights along China’s coast.
The fundamental solution would be to achieve a “great reconciliation”, which requires Washington to back down a bit and China to improve its method of communication and allow for US legitimate interests in the region.
Facing the new balance of power in the South China Sea, Washington should remain relatively neutral regarding disputes in the region in exchange for Beijing’s assurance of navigation safety and regional peace. Washington should also assess the risks involved with regional disputes since the Philippines and Vietnam are unable to play a big role in helping America contain China and may trigger more conflict.
The South China Sea does not entirely represent China-US relations, nor should it affect the scheduled summit meeting between Xi and Obama. In the region, the two countries may not agree, but one cannot contest it as a win-or-lose game.
Let’s hope that both leaders will make wise choices.
This article was first published in The Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hu-bo/peace-southchina-sea-_b_8186894.html
About the Author
Hu Bo is Research Fellow at the Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University.