A regional solution needed for South China Sea

By Ling Shengli Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/23 20:48:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

US President Donald Trump has returned from his "state visit plus" to China, Japan and South Korea after signing a number of agreements, among them a $253.5 billion trade deal with China as his most publicized achievement. Yet Trump's economic achievements accomplished during the tour stand out more than those made in the field of politics and security. His remarks regarding the South China Sea received a poor response in Southeast Asia. This shows that countries involved in the South China Sea disputes have their own viewpoints and that although they welcome non-regional countries playing a constructive role, excessive meddling for one's own gains is not appreciated.

The situation in the South China Sea has been relatively stable in recent months, largely due to parties involved in the dispute working hard to prevent the escalation of conflicts. Differences between China and Vietnam, and China and the Philippines make up the majority of the conflicts.

But recently, high-level officials from Beijing and Hanoi have stepped up communication, preventing controversies from snowballing. Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office, Manila's policy toward Beijing has taken a U-turn, with China and the Philippines pursuing win-win cooperation. Overly focusing on the South China Sea will only heighten differences between Beijing and Manila, while looking past them can help bring them on the same page in terms of the economy and security.

China, Vietnam and the Philippines have managed to control their differences regarding South China Sea disputes. In August this year, foreign ministers of China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to adopt a framework for a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, bringing the situation into a new phase. It will also serve as an institutional guarantee in easing and resolving disputes in the area. This hard-earned consensus was an outcome of years of struggle and contemplation by all sides.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that disputes can be settled once and for all. Implementation and gradual promotion are still needed. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has proposed a three-step plan to advance consultation of the COC. During the process, it is necessary to actively push all parties forward to greater fine-tune regulations and fulfill countries' commitments based on consensus, so as to realize a South China Sea community of common security, development and destiny.

Meanwhile, interference by the US, Japan, Australia and other nations, who have the capability to exert influence in the dispute, cannot be left unnoticed. 

Given that the Trump administration has been paying increasing attention to the North Korean nuclear crisis and also economic and trade issues in the Asia-Pacific region, Washington's current attention on the South China Sea is somewhat limited.

But the White House will not ignore the issue either; as it can use its leverage to make the dispute a bargaining chip to negotiate with Beijing, yet this wouldn't be easy for Washington.

By interfering in the South China Sea issue, the US is seeking to maintain its dominance in the Asia-Pacific. All other states that claim rights in the area serve as strategic pawns for Washington.

Yet this time, Vietnam and the Philippines have disregarded an offer made by the US to mediate in the South China Sea dispute, showing that their trust in Washington is limited and they are aware that escalating tensions in the waters is not the right approach toward solving the issue.

In fact, providing a solution is much better done without the intervention of the US. The COC negotiation on the South China Sea is good evidence of this.

The US is the most influential non-regional factor in resolving the South China Sea dispute, yet it has been playing a role of a troublemaker. ASEAN nations are now hoping to work with one another to bring the disputes under their control, instead of being directed by the US.

The chairman's statement at the just-concluded ASEAN summit suggested that members are willing to settle the dispute with China peacefully and promote the implementation of the South China Sea COC. Washington should take heed of this change. Its desire to see disorder in the region will not be realized.

The author is secretary-general of the International Security Study Center at China Foreign Affairs University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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