US no longer predominates in South China Sea

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/22 22:43:40

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis started his trip on Sunday to Indonesia and Vietnam, two large countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with a heavy interest in the South China Sea. As the US took China and Russia as its rivals in the National Security Strategy and the Pentagon last week made great-power competition the primary focus of US national security, in this trip Mattis is actually eyeing China and may bring up China-related topics regardless of whether his hosts want him to or not.

Last week the USS Hopper missile destroyer entered within 12 nautical miles of Huangyan Island in the South China Sea. While ASEAN countries concerned about the South China Sea have recently been committed to cooperation with China, Washington seemingly tries to make waves in the waters to remind them of disputes. The latest US naval operation may even be a warm-up for Mattis' tour.

If Washington wants to intensify its great-power competition with Beijing, the South China Sea is one of the best venues. The broad waters can give full play to the US Navy. And the maritime disputes can be used by the US to check China. Hence the world closely watches how Mattis will manipulate the South China Sea issue during the trip.

But Americans can't be too confident about the US role in these waters and shouldn't be too idealistic about how much ASEAN nations will fall in line behind US policy.

Most ASEAN nations want to strengthen economic cooperation and friendly relations with China, and meanwhile have a US presence in the region to balance against Beijing's expanding clout. As a region under the influence of both Beijing and Washington, these nations hope to maintain their strategic independence and avoid conflicting with, or being subject to, either power.

If ASEAN countries side with China or the US, they may become vassal states to one and conflict with the other, as shown in the case of the Philippines ruled by former president Benigno Aquino III. Singapore narrowly got on this path. But the two countries eventually adjusted their policy since picking sides doesn't serve their interests.

Since taking office, US President Donald Trump has shown less interest in ASEAN than his predecessor. Many regional countries then realized that following Washington goes against their interests and determined to strike a balance between China and the US.

As ASEAN and China started negotiations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea and disputes subsided, there has been a broad consensus that regional solidarity and cooperation shouldn't be hampered by such disputes.

For ASEAN countries, it's more important to avoid conflicts with China than obtain small favors from the US. The times are gone when the US played a predominant role in the South China Sea. If Washington insists on stirring up troubles in the region, it will become a lonely pirate left with only a few companions from outside the region.

China has exercised restraint against US provocations in the South China Sea, but there are limits. If the US doesn't stop its provocations, China will militarize the islands sooner or later. Then Washington will be left with no countermeasure options and suffer complete humiliation.

We hope that in his visit to Indonesia and Vietnam Mattis can maintain a realistic attitude and rationally react to the region's aspirations for peace and prosperity.
Newspaper headline: US no longer predominates in S.China Sea


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