Do not let US stoke disputes
South China Sea issues and thoughtless moves of some countries should not hinder ASEAN’s continued exchanges with BeijingThe annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was held recently in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, with the disputes and situation in the South China Sea on the agenda.
This is not the first time that the ARF has touched upon the South China Sea disputes. In July 2010, at the ARF Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Hanoi, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the disputes were concerned with the United States’ national interests and solving them in line with international laws would be the key to regional stability. Her speech was considered to mark a new twist of US policy line vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes.
The disputes have since then become a key part of the implementation of the US’ “pivot to Asia” policy, as well as an increasingly thorny issue in China-US exchanges. Especially so since China operated an oil rig near the Xisha Islands in April, which many US observers believed was part of China’s speeding up of its “salami slicing” strategy and called for a response to it.
Before the current ARF Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, the US and its allies made multiple moves. In July, US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel advised a “freeze” on actions aggravating disputes in the South China Sea, namely that related parties stop occupying more islands or reefs and establishing outposts, avoid changing landforms and do not take unilateral actions against any other country. While on the surface this initiative might reasonably opt for peace, but in the eyes of Beijing at least, it would actually legalize certain nations’ illegal occupying of islands and reefs in the South China Sea in past decades, as well as bestow on the US the status of “arbiter”.
The Philippines echoed the US’ initiative by claiming it would propose a three-step process to the ARF, namely suspending all actions, setting up a code of conduct among involved parties and solving disputes through international arbitration. Both initiatives seemed to gain support from several nations, and, as Washington and Manila expected, China would face the most coordinated pressure at the ARF.
The US is also trying to improve the binding effect and enforcement mechanism of international arbitration. For example, whether a nation accepts arbitration of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea can be taken as the prerequisite of participating in multinational military exercises or the Arctic Council. The US can also consider strengthening economic pressure on the involved Chinese SOEs like China National Offshore Oil Corp, which is reported to build floating liquefied natural gas carriers and explore underwater gas.
Meanwhile, the Philippines has been strengthening its maritime force. Since Benigno Aquino took office in 2010, the Philippine government has already invested 40 billion PHP ($910 million) on purchasing frigates, anti-submarine helicopters and long-range patrol aircraft, with a further plan to install advanced radar and a coastal warning system in the disputed sea area. Japan and Vietnam signed an agreement in early August, according to which Japan will give six ships to Vietnam to empower its maritime police. The Vietnamese government issued an order that all vessels of its Fishery Resources Supervision Department be equipped with weapons like pistols and machine guns as of Sept 15.
On July 11, Nguyen Phuoc Tuong, a former adviser to two Vietnamese prime ministers, said Vietnam must form an alliance with the US “to defeat the new Chinese expansionism” in an op-ed on The New York Times. Japan is preparing for the first Japan-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ meeting in November, which many believe is to counterbalance China’s emerging maritime power.
All the heated disputes about the South China Sea make the ARF Foreign Ministers’ Meeting especially important. On Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China supports and advocates a “dual-track” approach to solving the South China Sea disputes, namely that disputes should be addressed by the concerned countries peacefully through friendly negotiations, while peace and stability in the South China Sea should be jointly maintained by China and ASEAN countries. That means China is willing to embrace a multilateralism spirit in pacifying the situation and willing to negotiate with the parties involved in the disputes in a rule-based manner, though it will not accept any new trouble caused by certain nations.
To some extent, China and the US are competing over South China Sea issues and such competition is on proposing initiatives and rules that can attract more international support with a firmer legal and moral basis.
It should be noted, specifically, that China as a committed supporter of ASEAN and related mechanisms should clarify that it is not seeking to divide ASEAN. Over the years, China has hosted about one-third of the cooperation programs within the ARF framework; in 2015 it will co-host six programs together with ASEAN nations, which cover disaster-relief, maritime security, preventive diplomacy and cybersecurity.
These are good opportunities for ASEAN and China to improve their relations. Both sides need to prevent the maritime disputes from poisoning mutual relations. They cannot afford to be strategically misguided.
By Zhao Minghao (China Daily)/Asia News Network
The author is a research fellow with the Charhar Institute and adjunct fellow with the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University.
Round one of Asia pivot ends with tie
The latest ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting wrapped up on Sunday with a joint statement, in which quite an emphasis was given to the South China Sea crisis. Washington has shown its approval for the result, and some US analysts believe US backing has inspired ASEAN countries to be more united in facing China. But there are also other voices claiming that the US was cold-shouldered in the meeting as China was not mentioned in the statement and Washington’s call for a South China Sea “freeze” was also missing from discussions.
Perhaps a more convincing conclusion would be that China and the US reached a tie in this engagement in the South China Sea issue.
It was quite a surprise to China when the Obama administration pitched the “pivot to Asia” strategy in 2009. Washington has kept pushing so the dormant controversies in the East China Sea and South China Sea have become more explicit. Countries like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam keep posing challenges to China’s geopolitics.
But in these years, China’s neighborhood has become more controllable, as some principles have become a consensus. For example, in the Diaoyu Islands dispute, both China and Japan have expressed their determination to avoid military confrontation, although squabbles and spats never cease about the East China Sea. In the South China Sea, China is taking more initiatives to check the recklessness of the Philippines and Vietnam.
The first wave of force sent by Washington’s “rebalancing to Asia” strategy has died down. The US has achieved some of its goals effortlessly, but China has exerted some strength to deal with it. Both sides drew in the first round, as neither side can push their strategies without limitations.
Washington boasts military strength and the support of allies, but China’s economic influence in this region gives it leverage to win over many friends. In this case, the US parry has been fended off by China’s shield. If we must make these East and Southeast Asian countries pick sides between China and the US, the result would be unpredictable. This is because standing on neutral ground benefits them the most.
Washington will find it more difficult to inflict problems on China after the first round. It will face more resistance. If conflicts surrounding the South China Sea escalated, it would be an unfolding and resource-consuming disaster for both sides.
China has clear goals in its neighborhood policy, which is to safeguard its sovereignty and development environment. But as for the US, a rebalancing to Asia strategy to maintain its dominance in this area is not where its core interests lie. China is more determined than the US. Washington should become more level-headed and stop making calculations. There won’t be a united front going against China in this area, and this truth also applies for China, as it is unable to drive off the presence of US as well.
– Source:Global Times Published: 2014-8-12 0:43:02
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