Obama raises S.China Sea tensions to consolidate diplomatic legacy

By Li Kaisheng Source:Global Times Published: 2016-3-9 23:53:01

US presidents generally avoid raising new conflicts in international affairs in the last year of their last term of office. However, on the South China Sea issue, US President Barack Obama is going against this rule. After frequently sending fighter jets and warships to the waters, Washington has recently sent a carrier strike group into the South China Sea. Moreover, Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Command, announced that it will organize joint naval exercises with Japan and India in the disputed waters in the South China Sea around northern Philippines.

The reason Obama did so is to reinforce his rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, the most important diplomatic strategy he has been committed to since he took office. In order to make the next president continue on the path, Obama has to instill in the Americans the severity of the South China Sea issues, and turn US engagement in the area into an irreversible legacy.

Therefore, the White House has talked up every single topic about the waters including China's island construction, freedom of navigation and militarization in the South China Sea, and then highlighted the significance of these issues by sending warships and fighters.

Another reason for the US to act this way is the Philippines, a valuable chess piece used by Washington in the South China Sea. Manila is in an election year, and the next president will assume office in June. So far, major candidates in the elections have all showed introspection over the nation's South China Sea policy, while voicing their appeal for communication and negotiation with Beijing.

Feeling the growing risks, the US won't allow the situation out of its control. How to "kidnap" the Philippines and tightly bind the country to Washington have become a significant starting point of US moves.

The US won't reveal these reasons to the public. Hence Harris raised an excuse that freedom of navigation is a fundamental right of every country, and said that "some countries seek to bully smaller nations through intimidation and coercion." Obviously, "some countries" means "one country," and that is China.

The question is, has the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea ever been hampered by China? None of merchant ships has been disrupted in the waters so far. Even the US warships have always been coming and going in the area, and only when they sail near the islands claimed by China are they placed under necessary surveillance.

Meanwhile, it has to be stated that whether a country's navy ship can sail in others' waters and how it should navigate is still disputed in the international law.

"Intimidation and coercion" seems more like the words of politicians, rather than a professional military figure. When other claimant countries carried out the islands construction, expelled Chinese fishermen, or ran aground on the disputed reefs, were they "intimidating" and "coercing?"

Some would say that the scale of China's constructions is bigger, but China acted only after other claimants largely exploited the resources in the area. According to the logic of Harris, the US has not only sent carrier strike groups, but also organized large-scale military drills, isn't that "intimidation and coercion?"

Under the guise of justice, the US intention is very obvious. It wants to change its previous stance that it did not take position on territory and sovereignty issues. It is taking a side, cozying up to Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines and Vietnam, utilizing Japan and India's desire on the waters, strengthening its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, and forging a united front to contain the rise of China.

However, the White House might have underestimated the responses from the Chinese side. As an emerging nation, China will not be brought to its knees by external forces. Given Chinese diplomatic logic, which goes "We will not attack unless we are attacked; if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack," Beijing is likely to be forced to resort to militarization while confronting US actions in the South China Sea.

By then, the situation in the waters will be more tense, conflicts and even clashes will be more likely to break out between China and the US, and those who are already tied to Washington might also be dragged to a war that they don't ever want.

Countries sincerely hoping for peace do not want to see this. What about the US?

The author is a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: Viewpoint, South China Sea Focus

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