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Zhao Minghao: South China Sea tensions shouldn’t slow exchanges


By Zhao Minghao    Source: Global Times    Published: 2015-11-10


The Chinese and US navies kicked off a joint military drill in the Atlantic waters near Florida recently. Despite frictions caused by a US Navy destroyer sailing into waters within 12 nautical miles of Chinese islands in the South China Sea, both countries hope to avoid miscalculation and advance military communication and cooperation steadily amid divergences.

Diplomacy is the art of messaging. In fact, China has been unleashing signals to alleviate tensions in the South China Sea, but regretfully the US and other countries failed to understand these messages.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in September when he visited the US that Beijing and Washington have "a lot of common interests" on the issue of the South China Sea and both countries support the maintenance of peace and stability in the waters. Xi also stressed that construction activities that China is undertaking in the Nansha Islands do not target or impact any country and China has no intention to pursue militarization.

Speaking at the National University of Singapore a few days ago, Xi said "The situation in the South China Sea is generally peaceful, right of passage or flight has never been a problem, and will never be a problem." He also emphasized that China has the confidence and ability to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea along with the ASEAN members.  

This indicates the attitude that China`s top leader takes toward the South China Sea issue. The US and other countries involved should not ignore or disregard it, nor should they respond it in a confrontational way. If the US hawks continue escalating US military actions in the South China Sea, it will be dangerous and costly, which will force China to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Militarization of the South China Sea is the last thing all parties concerned want to see, but it risks turning into a reality due to repugnant interactions. In that case, freedom of navigation will be shadowed and the waters, which are of vital importance to the world economy, will be filled with the smell of gunpowder.

Although China, the US and other West-Pacific countries signed the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in 2014 which regulates that navies should avoid misjudgment and provocations when they meet at sea, specific mechanism to implement the code are still absent.

This is far from enough to calm concerns about the breakout of maritime conflict.  

Given this, China`s State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Chang Wanquan, while chairing an informal meeting of the Chinese and ASEAN defense ministers, said that China is willing to hold a joint drill with ASEAN countries regarding the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and a joint drill regarding maritime search and rescue and disaster relief.

China hopes to make the utmost efforts to avoid accidents and escalation of tensions in the South China Sea. If conditions are ripe, China could also take a multinational joint patrol that aims to safeguard peace in the South China Sea into consideration.

However, should countries like Japan and Australia recklessly join a US-led joint patrol that targets China, the situation will get tenser.

There is still reason to be cautiously optimistic that China and the US are able to manage their increasingly strained relations over the South China Sea issue. Both have enough reasons to prevent divergences slipping into military confrontation.

In the following weeks, Xi will meet US President Barack Obama at the G20 summit and APEC meetings. The success of the upcoming Paris Climate Change Conference also hinges on cooperation between China and the US. One of the merits of frequently held summits is that they can facilitate face-to-face communications of top leaders.

In addition, the military communication between China and the US hasn`t been interrupted.

Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., commander of US Pacific Command, visited China as scheduled. Next month, the destroyer USS Stethem and Admiral Scott Swift, the US Pacific Fleet commander, will visit Shanghai. The following weeks will also witness over 30 projects as part of China-US military communications, with participants ranging from four-star admirals to cadets.  

The most important thing is that the bilateral ties shouldn`t be kidnapped by the South China Sea issue. Beijing and Washington should take messages from the other side more seriously, and avoid interpreting them in a pessimistic way.

The author is a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.


Key Words: South China Sea   China   US  

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