The United States seems to be flexing its military muscles in Northeast Asia and the South China Sea for some time now, especially after the sinking of the Republic of Korea's (ROK) corvette, Cheonan, on March 26.
Ignoring Beijing's repeated opposition, the US and the ROK held a military exercise in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, precariously close to China's maritime boundary, last month.
On Aug 8, on its way back from the joint drill, American nuclear-powered super-carrier USS George Washington hosted a delegation of Vietnamese military officers about 320 km off the Vietnamese port of Danang in the South China Sea. A couple of days later, American destroyer USS John S. McCain docked in Vietnam for a four-day "non-combat" exchange program.
What is particularly noteworthy is the fast developing military ties between the US and Vietnam, which fought a bloody war for two decades (by far the bloodiest Cold War military conflict). Interestingly, the US warships' visit to Vietnam has been described as a "commemoration" of the 15th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between the former enemies.
And then came the news that the US and Vietnam were in "advanced talks" over a nuclear deal. An article, Concerned about China's rise, Southeast Asia nations build up militaries, in the Aug 9 edition of the Washington Post says: "The nations of Southeast Asia are edging closer strategically to the US as a hedge against China's rise and its claims to all of the South China Sea."
So, the US intervention in the South China Sea disputes isn't incidental. It's the outcome of the Barack Obama administration's "return to Asia" strategy. Some American analysts argue that China expanded its influence in Southeast Asia as the US was focused on the "war on terror" after the 9/11 attacks. Their logic is simple: any potential challenger to Washington in Eurasia should be the target of US global startegy.
Western publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek have published articles saying the US needs to work out "a new China strategy" taking the South China Sea as a starting point. And US Senator John McCain has said that "hooking in Vietnam" as a new strategic pivot to counterbalance China's influence is in the interests of US security.
Though Vietnam is expected to strike some kind of balance among major world powers, it is unlikely to side with the US openly and turn China into an enemy. If the world were to judge the situation only on the basis of the exaggerated and provocative reports in the Western media, which say China's neighbors and the US are jointly confronting Beijing, it could be misled easily.
In fact, a recent declaration by the Philippines Foreign Ministry dealt a heavy blow to such rhetoric. The Philippines Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo told reporters on Aug 9 that negotiations should be strictly between the ASEAN and China, without the involvement of the US or any other party. The Malaysian media, too, have said that America's involvement in the South China Sea dispute could only lead to trouble.
China has undisputed sovereignty over the islands and reefs and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea. But it insists on solving the disputes with its neighbors through talks based on international laws and opposes any attempt to internationalize the territorial disputes.
In the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by China and ASEAN member countries in 2002, all the sides pledged to exercise restraint, and not to turn the disputes into international issues. A rising China understands and respects other countries' pursuit of a multi-directional and diversified diplomacy. But it has made it clear it will not tolerate any plot to contain its economic and social development.
Old-fashioned military alliance games continue even in the 21st century, but the West's international realism theory, based on balance of power, cannot adapt to the reality of today's changing world, let alone accept the protests against US military presence and influence in countries such as Japan, the ROK and the Philippines, which are American allies.
Globalization has changed the pattern of relations betweeb countries and global interdependence today is far beyond people's imagination. By getting involved in the South China Sea disputes and fanning trouble between China and its neighbors, Washington aims to contain Beijing and re-establish its global hegemony.
But since China's rise is an irresistible historical process, Beijing should stick to its bottom line, that is, not allow anybody to harm its core national interests, which is in line with the China-US Joint Statement issued during Obama's visit to China in November. This would be the best way to ease the anti-China pressure being built up by the US.
China has not wavered from the road of peaceful development and the building of good relationships and partnerships with its neighboring countries, including Southeast Asian nations. America's intervention in the South China Sea disputes is far from a peaceful move.
Besides, it can never strengthen regional security; it can only give rise to new conflicts. And this is not a good sign for China, the US or the Asian-Pacific region.
Hence, China and the US should see constructively from the angle of peaceful coexistence, rather than glare at each other furiously at every turn.
Article appeared on China Daily, August 18th edition, written by Fu Mengzi, assistant president of China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
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