As China, ASEAN manage divergences, US steps up intervention

By Wu Shicun Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/8 19:58:39

China and ASEAN foreign ministers adopted on Sunday the framework of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea during a meeting in Manila. Experts said that it marks an important achievement for China and ASEAN in jointly managing their differences and easing tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) disputed waters.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a visit to the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia from August 5 to 9. His maiden trip to Southeast Asia indicates the US will likely meddle in the affairs of the SCS to strengthen its clout in the region.

The Trump administration has not yet formed its policy on the SCS and the Asia-Pacific region.

US media outlets recently reported that an annual plan was submitted to the White House by Defense Secretary James Mattis in April. It expatiated on a one-year schedule of when US navy ships will sail through the disputed South China Sea.

US authorities have not confirmed whether the plan was passed by Trump and Congress. However, the fact is that the US government, under the guise of "freedom of navigation operations" (FONOP), has hindered the SCS situation, consolidated its alliances to contain China and stymied the process of forging rules and regional order championed by China.

A new round of US FONOP in the SCS will pose a threat to the regional situation, making US allies, partners and other countries in and outside the region adjust their SCS policies and increase maritime operations.

Countries like Japan, Australia, India and Vietnam will embrace the US FONOP plan. Japan is likely to directly coordinate with the US navy to carry out FONOP in the SCS, in a bid to build its long-term military presence in the SCS.

Australia and India will likely join forces with the US navy to conduct FONOP in the SCS, to the point where their maritime operations won't imperil their diplomatic ties with China.

Vietnam is unlikely to openly support the plan, but will support US FONOP in the SCS through military cooperation, such as providing its port for the US navy.

In addition, the US plan for FONOP in the SCS is signaling to the global community that the US continues its policy of taking sides and restraining China in terms of the SCS issues. This will undoubtedly prompt some claimant countries to side with the US and run the risk of taking unilateral action.

It is with this understanding that the US annual plan for FONOP in the SCS reveals the Trump administration is following its predecessor's Asia-Pacific policy, that is, to maintain US dominance in the Asia-Pacific region based on its alliances.

This will definitely ignite tensions in the SCS, represented by military confrontation between China and the US.

Against this backdrop, China should not underestimate the negative effects this will have on its claims on the SCS. As the largest coastal country in the SCS and a state having sovereignty over the SCS islands, China is obliged and able to safeguard the peace and stability of the SCS region.

For one thing, China should increase military deployment in the SCS to raise the cost of military action targeted at China taken by US and other countries outside the region. For another, China should coordinate with relevant parties through channels like diplomacy, public opinion and maritime operations.

A bilateral negotiation mechanism should be established between China and other claimant countries to mitigate disagreements, advance maritime cooperation and joint development, and ensure zero possibility of risky action taken by some countries unilaterally.

In addition, China should cooperate with ASEAN member states to advance the negotiations of the Code of Conduct (COC) and development of security mechanisms in the SCS region, in a bid to maintain its leading role in SCS affairs. 

Apart from that, China should beef up efforts to protect its legal rights in the Diaoyu Islands and promote construction of civilian facilities on the Nansha Islands to provide public services for the international community as soon as possible.

As two influential powers, China and the US are exerting profound influence on the peace and stability of the SCS and the Asia-Pacific region. Cooperation between the two countries will benefit the SCS while confrontation will only keep the region from peace and stability.

The author is president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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