Sea spats alone can’t shape Sino-US ties

By Li Haidong Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/14 21:38:00

Is there any chance of war in the South China Sea? This is a question that deeply concerns China and the US after the award of the South China Sea arbitration was issued on Tuesday.

It is clear that policymakers from both Beijing and Washington aren't willing to solve the South China Seas issue through military options. Nevertheless, the two sides, especially the White House, have been gathering warships and armaments in the waters these days, which has made the region combustible.

Against such a backdrop, an accidental gunshot might put policymakers in both countries under huge pressure from public opinion, which could unexpectedly escalate the situation and lead to a grave crisis in the area.

The South China Sea is China's core interests because it is closely related to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. China will not rule out the use of armed forces if other parties take more aggressive military actions. But what the US wants in the South China Sea issue is to enhance its dominant status through playing off countries in Southeast Asia against China. The South China Sea issue has nothing to do with US-defined core interests and is not worth a military conflict against China.

The South China Sea issue is only a dispute between China and its neighboring countries. The US is not a party to this dispute. The US using force to solve this issue contradicts its strategic interests in this region. There are broad bases for China and the US to cooperate in dealing with various regional or global issues though there exists, in the meantime, conflicting issues confronting the two countries.

Different views on the South China Sea should not be used to define the nature of the whole China-US relationship. However, for some high-level US officials, the South China Sea issue is so important that it could determine overall China-US relations, which is totally unacceptable and unreasonable.

Both China and the US highlight the importance of building and protecting a rule-based international order. But the two countries have diverging interpretation of the "rules."

Beijing's actions on the South China Sea issue are aimed at consolidating UN-centered world order. The US, however, sticks to the blueprint of constructing US-dominated world order with its own alliances at the core. China advocates comprehensive security concept and order. The US adheres to a narrowly defined security concept and order. It is natural for China to doubt US intentions and action in the South China Sea. The US has deployed warships and aircraft to the area, which only leads to the exacerbation of tensions in this region and greater confrontation between China and the US.

Objectively speaking, the waters could become an area of China-US collaboration. Take freedom of navigation as an example. As a key shipping route, a total of $5.3 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea each year. China's constructions on its own territory there could help provide more security assurance to the cargo ships in the waters that come from all over the world. But for Washington, such security assurances can only be provided by the US. The US still lives in the world of the past and maintains a hegemonic and Cold War mentality.

There are quite a few divergences between Beijing and Washington in terms of the South China Sea. Yet the two sides should adhere to the willingness of dialogue and negotiation, rather than resorting to military deterrence and confrontation.

The US has a tradition of resolving international crises through force though unfortunately, the 21st century has witnessed a series of failures of US military actions. The US should draw the lessons of its addiction to force.

Divergence is as normal as cooperation in relations among major powers. Before the South China Sea issue was hyped up, there were other heated disputes between Beijing and Washington including human rights and the Taiwan question.

Both China and the US, until now, have both responsibly handled these differences in a way so that they never disrupt the overall framework of China-US cooperation. Both sides should also take a similar constructive attitude to handle the South China Sea issue.

Construction of a balanced bilateral relationship in the years to come will largely depend on China. As long as Beijing can maintain internal stability, boost its comprehensive strength, and enhance its global influence, Sino-US ties will witness positive advancement.

Washington is now accustomed to being No.1 in the world. It is not willing to figure out a way to settle the South China Sea issue on the basis of Beijing's logic, nor does it ever want to give China equal status when dealing with international affairs. As China continues its growth, the US will adapt to an evolving world situation.

Similarly, while sufficiently and immediately explaining China's intentions, China needs to firmly settle the South China Sea issue according to its own plan. A more prosperous and stronger China is the best hope of peace in the South China Sea as well as in the world.

The author is a professor with the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University.

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