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Muddy Waters
U.S. action in the South China Sea stirs up new trouble in the region
By Chu Yin | NO. 46 NOVEMBER 12, 2015


Chinese workers lay lighted buoys on waters near China's Yongxing Island in the South China Sea to facilitate ship navigation on August 4 (XINHUA)

The U.S.S. Lassen 's entry into waters near the relevant islands and reefs of China's Nansha Islands in late October triggered a wave of protest in China. Mainstream opinion held that the move by the American battleship was provocative as regards China's territorial sovereignty in the region.

It is well-known that territorial disputes over islands and reefs in the South China Sea exist between China and some Southeast Asian countries. The fundamental root of these disputes is the contention that China's territories in the South China Sea have been nibbled away at by neighboring countries over the past few decades. China retook these islands in 1945 when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. However, owing to the civil war that continued thereafter, China did not have the necessary strength nor resources to safeguard these landmasses. By the time the country tried to protect its maritime territories in the 1970s, invasion had already occurred.

At present, a total of 42 Chinese islands and reefs in the South China Sea are occupied by other countries. Nearly 30 of these islands and reefs have been claimed by Viet Nam. Nevertheless, China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and has ample historical and jurisprudential evidences to support this claim.

The sovereignty of every inch of soil precludes the legality of a land invasion. But when it comes to waters, a basic difference is that international law permits vessels the legal right to sail upon them.

For a long time, China demarcated its sovereignty with the nine-dash line in the South China Sea, emphasizing historical evidence of the veracity of its territorial claim. Therefore, the sovereignty of islands and reefs in the South China Sea represents a core interest that the country must defend. As for surrounding waters, the Chinese Government has always stressed that it respects and safeguards navigation freedom and overflight across the South China Sea.

China is willing to resolve these problems through negotiations with countries directly involved. However, some countries are eager to find any evidence to validate the so-called "China threat" theory in the region. They try to cover up their invasion of Chinese islands using this perceived threat as an excuse. The United States is not helping. The reported plan to deploy U.S. Navy to navigate through waters in the South China Sea "about twice a quarter or a little more than that" represents a clear irritation to China.

Clamoring for war under the pretense of freedom of navigation does not help to solve the issue but, conversely, represents zero-sum thinking. China has never feared war but at the same time has no lust for it. Its most devout wish is peace and development because the country believes that this is the only way to achieve prosperity and win-win outcomes in the region. In short, China hopes to be a proactive player in global governance rather than a challenger to the present global status quo.

For this reason, China is pursuing a prudent and moderate policy on the South China Sea issue. It is trying to build a community of common destiny with Southeast Asian countries through promoting initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, the United States seeks to enhance security ties with Southeast Asian countries as part of its strategy of shifting the balance of power to the Asia-Pacific. Making trouble for China in the South China Sea will make Southeast Asian countries further reliant on the United States but will not be conducive to resolving regional tensions.

The author is an associate professor at the University of International Relations in Beijing 

Copyedited by Eric Daly

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