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Thursday, 23 July 2015

Challenges in South China Sea, sophisticated diplomacy needed

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Sophisticated diplomacy needed to tackle challenges in South China Sea

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III will seek the congressional approval of the proposed national budget for 2016 next week. In the budget proposal, the defense budget is $552 million, less than one 200th of China's military spending for 2015. The size of the Philippine defense budget may surprise many Chinese.

The defense spending of Vietnam is much higher than that of the Philippines. It reached $4 billion in 2014, but is still incomparable to China's. The GDP of Vietnam is less than $200 billion, much less than that of China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region which borders Vietnam. This will definitely constrain its overall scale of defense budget.

Though judging from the military spending of the Philippines and Vietnam, we can perhaps understand that the two countries won't pose a serious military threat to China in the South China Sea. But they are very likely to make a fuss and lean to external actors to intrude China's sovereignty and interests in the South China Sea.

The Philippines, facing a China with expanding maritime strength, feels anxious. But it is still greedy in its territorial claims. It holds a complex and sensitive mentality toward China.

Propaganda that China bullies small South China Sea claimants can spread easily, especially when Washington and Tokyo meddle backstage. China needs to do a lot of work to convince people of historical facts such as the origin of the nine-dashed line and that China holds sovereignty over the Nansha Islands. However, it is much easier to frame China as attempting to exert "hegemony" in the South China Sea.

China has to deal with the Philippines and Vietnam with enough patience and at the same time respond to distorted interpretations from the US and Japan about China's reef-building. The troubles are mostly caused by Manila and Hanoi, while strategic pressure mainly comes from the US.

The US and Japan have teamed up with the Philippines. China is not only facing several vessels and coast guard ships of the Philippines. Rather, China has been striving to figure out how to deal with the above issues and its own stakes in such a complicated scenario.

Obviously, China does not want to bear such reputations as "bullying small countries" or "seeking hegemony in the South China Sea." An impression of a peacefully rising China fits the country's global strategy. But if the Philippines and Vietnam, instigated by the US and Japan, cause a nuisance and step over China's red line, China will not remain restrained.

The Philippines and Vietnam are well aware of this. With China's increasing capabilities in the South China Sea, they will behave more cautiously.

The rivalry in the South China Sea is a highly technical diplomatic game and strategic contest. The public opinion should lend support, and Chinese decision-makers must be specialized diplomatic and strategic institutions. The Chinese public needs to know the real pattern of strength in the South China Sea and acknowledge that China has ample room to maneuver over the Philippines and Vietnam.

The strategy of the Philippines is to whine to the world about China's "bullying" so as to hinder China's global strategy. Hence it has formed an accord with Washington and Tokyo.

China has succeeded in its land reclamation projects on the Nansha Islands. This is an outcome of China's diplomatic specialization. It is reasonable and legitimate. The US and the Philippines can do nothing about it despite voicing objections.

The South China Sea should be an area where Chinese society can find confidence after experiencing long-time sufferings and setbacks. A big country not only owns its strength, but also has a broad mindset and wisdom to count its losses and gains.

Daniel Russel’s S.China Sea remarks absurd

US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel Tuesday criticized China's policy on the South China Sea in Washington. These comments may sound reasonable to nonprofessionals but are not even worth refuting by legal experts.

Russel claimed that China misunderstood US neutrality and stressed that Washington only maintains neutrality with regard to the competing claims in the area. But when it comes to "adhering to international law," the US will not be neutral and will "come down forcefully." The US backs the Philippines' lawsuit to the international maritime tribunal and said the arbitration will be binding for both China and the Philippines.

It is necessary for the US to elaborate what article of international law that China's land reclamation activities in the Nansha Islands have violated and what forceful coercion China's engineering ships have done to neighboring countries.

By claiming both China and the Philippines need to accept the decision of the arbitral tribunal, Russel has deliberately misguided public opinion. Despite joining the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China submitted a declaration in 2006, stating that China does not accept any of the procedures provided for in Section 2 of Part XV of the Convention with respect to all the categories of disputes referred to in Article 298 of the Convention, which includes territorial disputes. Thirty-six countries, including South Korea, have made similar statements.

It's perfectly legal for China not to accept the arbitral tribunal's decision; in fact, forcing China to accept or abide by the arbitration result is illegal. Russel claimed the South China Sea issue has caused serious conflict between China and the US. But it needs to be pointed out that the conflict is at China's door, which is 12 time zones away from Washington. The conflict is actually imposed by Washington on us.

There are numerous claimants to the Nansha Islands. It's impossible for China to give up its sovereign claim; however, it didn't attempt to militarily expel Manila and Hanoi from the islands they illegally occupy. The Philippines deliberately stranded an old navy ship in China's Ren'ai Reef in 1999. It initially pledged to salvage the ship, but later on rascally reneged on this by reinforcing the ship. China has exercised restraint over the years. But Washington openly supports Manila's occupation of Ren'ai Reef. Where is the justice?

Chinese people never actually bank on Washington's neutrality, which doesn't exist at all. The US's South China Sea strategy serves its geopolitical purpose. Through lending support to Manila and Hanoi, it can realize its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. South China Sea claimants have maintained the peace despite conflicts. The future situation will depend on how Sino-US competition develops, especially what intentions the US has in the South China Sea. As long as Washington doesn't want the tension to escalate, there will be hope for peace.

Swift’s South China Sea flight can only fool Manila

During his visit to the Philippines Saturday, Scott Swift, newly appointed US commander of the Pacific Fleet, joined a surveillance mission on board a P-8A Poseidon plane to observe the aircraft's full range of capabilities in the South China Sea. The US Navy released photos of Swift taking a bird's eye view of the South China Sea, but did not mention if the aircraft had flown over disputed areas.

The Philippine side soon welcomed Swift's move, believing it was a gesture from its US ally to aid its claims to the disputed territories with China.

Swift must have felt that he was the overlord of the South China Sea, as he merely flew over the area but the flight got various interpretations from the Philippine side and regional observers. Washington is an external player that can only exert limited influence to strike a balance over the South China Sea issue. That the US could extend its authority by "inspecting" the South China Sea would only be the illusion of a small number of Americans and Filipinos.

We have noticed that the US Navy has kept much lower key than two months ago when it released details that its reconnaissance plane had approached the Chinese islands under construction. It is estimated that the US will not behave inappropriately in the South China Sea before the meeting of the US and Chinese heads of states in September. But in the long run, its competition with China in the area is unavoidable.

China is accustomed to the frequent petty actions of the US in the South China Sea and is getting itself ready for the troubles stirred up by the US there. China is also improving its abilities in coping with the issue as well.

Most observers hold that while the US wants to strengthen the allies' trust, it does not have the excuse and determination to square off with China. Hence the contradictory and chaotic messages it conveys. Most importantly, Washington does not admit the facts. China has exercised much restraint in the South China Sea and its land reclamation does not violate international law, leaving others no excuse to prevent the move. But the US puts on a posture of involvement while it can unlikely take any substantial action, putting itself in an awkward position.

Manila is even worse. How can it be possible that the Philippines' disputes with China are resolved by the US? Does Manila think that China would acknowledge its unreasonable territorial claims after Swift's flight or if the US sends more navy ships? It would be overly simplistic if Manila thinks this way.

Recently a fictional post circulating on Chinese social media reflects the mentality of the Chinese public that China will not start up conflicts with the Philippines. But if Manila oversteps the red line for any reason, Beijing will strike back regardless of Washington's attitude.

It is understandable that the US hopes to maintain its clout in the area and the Philippines wants to counter China by roping in the US. But they need to mind the boundaries. The Philippines needs to be cautious in the area, as China has been.

Sources: Global Times