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Xue Li and Xu Yanzhuo:China and the US Won't F

(2015-06-19 12:45:40)




分类: 南海研究与评论

For the published version on The Diplomat on June 19, please visit:





The author has argued that SCS dispute has developed into a phenomenon feathered by “ASEAN claimants stay behind the scene while external powers stand on the stage” this year in an article namedChina should accelerate the adjustment of South China Sea policypublished on April 27.The incidents afterwards made the author further thinking. Based on these evidences, it could conclude that India and Japan would stand by US for their own interests. And US would serve not only as a “director”, but also an “actor” in this issue. It could be seen from the fact that on May 20, US military has send surveillance aircraft over three islands controlled by Beijing. However, it does not necessary mean US-China military conflicts are foreseen.


As a global hegemonic power, it is US’s interest and role to maintain the current international order, peace and stability. Regarding SCS area, US’s interests include, peace and stability; freedom of commercial navigation; and military activities in exclusive economic zones. Thus, “maintaining the current balance of power” is considered to be a key condition for the interest listed above. Against this background, a rising China to strengthen its territory is viewed as “breaking the current balance of power”. In response to it, US has launched the strategy of “return to Asia Pacific” and “Asia-Pacific Rebalance”. In practice, it has on the one hand strengthenedits military presence in Asia-Pacific, while on the other hand, it supported ASEAN countries, particularly those ASEAN claimants. Evidences could be seen from the following points,


In 2010, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke in Hanoi that “aligned the US firmly with South East Asia’s approach to overlapping claims in SCS”’; in 2012, US Secretary of Defense Panetta explained how the US will rebalance its force posture in support of ‘a deeper and more enduring partnership role’ in the Asia-Pacific regionin Shangri-La Dialogue; Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command,has called for Indo-Asia-Pacific Cooperation in Congress hearing in March 2013; in 2014, Chunk Hagel, US Secretary of Defensecalled out China’s “destabilizing, unilateral activities in the South China Sea”while China’s HD-981 oil rig was deployed in the waters around the Paracel Islands; and since 2015, it has pressured China into scaling back its construction work in the Spratly islands and send aircraft to patrol over Spratly islandscontrolled by China. These measures have triggered a global attention to SCS.


However, if we view this issue from its practical significance, it could be seen that none of the three interests in SCS belongs to US’s national core interest. And US-Philippines relationship is not as important as US-Japan allies, US’s relations with ASEAN countries is even weaker. Additionally, when considering US-China mutual economic dependence and China’s comprehensive national strength, US isunlikely to have military confrontation with China in SCS issue. The “peace president” Obama, who has withdrawn US military from Iraq and Afghanistan, is less possible to fight with China for SCS dispute.


Washington is surely aware that China has not affected the freedom of business navigation in this water so far. And Beijing is developing its stand and could recognize military activities in EEZ. (A typical example would be China-Russia joint military exercise in Mediterranean.) Yet regarding China’s large scale of land reclamation in Spratly Islands (and expanding Woody Island in Paracel Islands), US seems worried that Beijing would conduct a series of activities to strengthen its claims on SCS, such as establishing ADIZ,advocatinga distance of 200 nautical miles (370 km) EZZ out from its islands, etc. Meanwhile, The HD-981 incidence sendsWashington a message that ASEAN claimants and even ASEAN as a whole could hardly play any effective role in China’s land reclamation. Hence, US has no better choice than directly involving into this issue. 


At the beginning, US stopped China through non-public diplomatic mediation, yet it soon realized that this approach is not effective in persuading China to scale up its construction, therefore, it started to conduct a more aggressiveway, such as promoting India, Japan, ASEAN, G7 and Europe Union to pressure Beijing internationally, and domestically US officials from different departments and different levels have opposed China to “change the status quo” in this area. Since 2015, Washington has increased its pressures to China. It has sent littoral combat ship (LCS) Fort Worth to sail in the water near the Spratly area controlled by Vietnam on May 11 and said it would send naval and air patrols over the 12 nautical miles out from the Spratly Islands controlled by China, before Hilary’s visit to Beijing.


Washington has recognized that it could hardly stop China’s construction in Spratly Islands. Therefore, it chose to portray Beijing as a challenger to the status quo, at the same time to prevent China to establish ADIZ and a distance of 200 nautical miles (370 km) EZZ out from the artificial islands. Against this background, US has conducted a series of measures. Recently, it sent P8A surveillance plane with reporters on board to approach the three artificial island built by China. Despite China has issued 8 warnings, US responded by saying the plane was flying through international airspace. Afterwards, US Defense Department spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said there would be a potential “freedom of navigation” exercise within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands.


If this approach were possible, it will back China into a comer; hence it is unlikely to be adopted by Obama administration. On the other side, China is determined to build the artificial islands andseveralairstripsin Spratly Islands, which would promote the resolution of SCS disputes. The reason to this argument has been explained in the author’s recently published paper named China should accelerate the adjustment of SCS policy. It is also worth noting that if China has establishedADIZ and advocated 200 nautical miles EZZ, it would push ASEAN claimants, and even non-claimants to stand by US. Obviously, the potential effect contradicts with OBOR strategy. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s response, “as for the differences, our attitude is it is okay to have differences as long as we could avoid misunderstanding, and even more importantly, avoid miscalculation”.Additionally, in February 2014,in response to reports by Japan's Asahi Shimbun that a South China Sea ADIZ was imminent, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has hinted that China does not necessarily do that, as “the Chinese side has yet to feel any air security threat from the ASEAN countries and is optimistic about its relations with the neighboring countries and the general situation in the South China Sea region”.


Along with US’s aggressiveinvolvement with a high-profile, the balance of power in SCS disputes could be viewed from three layers, China and ASEAN claimants; China and ASEAN and China and US, where the former two layers have been impacted by the dynamic China-US relations. To some extent, it could say SCS dispute has developed into the balance of power between US and China, yet both sides would not take the risk of military confrontation.


As for Beijing, since OBOR is the primary strategic agenda in the coming years, it is key for China to strengthen economic relationship with ASEAN on the one hand, while reducing ASEAN claimants’ security concerns on the other hand. As a result, it should conduct the following approach, to accelerate the adjustment of SCS policy; to clarify China’s stand on SCS and to propose China’s blueprint in resolving SCS dispute.


Since 2012, the Shangri La Dialogue has become a platform for US and China to tussle on SCS, where US is proactive and China is reactive. This partly explains the reason to China’s upgrading Xiangshan Forum. In addition, SCS dispute has a feature of seasonal pattern, where first half of the year focused on conflicts, and the second half tends to emphasize cooperation. Considering its timing, Shangri La dialogue served as a hot spot in this issue with no exception this year. US has done a lot of preparation to draw the world’s attention on Shangri La Dialogue this year. But the audience should be aware that the aggressivestatements were made by military rather than political elites. After all, US and China will have Strategic Economic Dialogue at the end of June and ASEAN meeting will start afterwards.  



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