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Zhao Minghao: Political agenda drives ‘China threat’ at sea


By Zhao Minghao    Source: Global Times    Published: 2018-7-23

Joe Courtney, ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, recently speaking at Hudson Institute accused China of challenging the "70-year reign of freedom of navigation" and trying to change the "peaceful rule of law that existed in the maritime realm." The accusation is nothing new compared to what the US has leveled over the past few years.

Courtney, by highlighting the so-called China threat, in fact tried to demonstrate the need for the US to make a comprehensive maritime strategy and increase the funding for naval ship-building. The constituencies of the congressman include the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and General Dynamics Electric Boat, primary builder of submarines for the US Navy.

Courtney aims to create more jobs in his constituencies. Not long ago, he sponsored an amendment to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that would increase the pace of Virginia-class submarine construction from the current two per year to three. But the proposal was opposed by the Pentagon. Although the US Navy has set a goal to raise the strength of the combat fleet from the current 286 to 355, Courtney questioned the effort worrying what will be increased are only small combatant surface vessels rather than submarines and large vessels. Obviously, hyping up the China threat at sea is economically and politically profitable.

More importantly, Courtney's remarks are prompting people to pay attention to the increasingly prominent US-China maritime strategic competition. The Trump administration has labeled China a "strategic competitor." In addition to the trade war, intensifying maritime competition seems to have been an important part of the US' tough policy toward China.

Since last year, China has steadily improved relations with such countries as the Philippines, Vietnam and cooperated with ASEAN to promote the South China Sea Code of Conduct negotiations. Tempers over the South China Sea have cooled down. On July 17, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he believed that "China will be fair" in eventually solving its disputes with Manila in the South China Sea and that Filipinos would realize "China is really a good neighbor," during a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony of two China-funded bridges in Manila.

For ASEAN, dealing with the trade war challenge created by the US is now a more urgent issue than the South China Sea dispute, which can be seen from several statements issued by recently-held ASEAN meetings. Such things are unpleasant for some Americans who are not willing to see a stabilizing South China Sea.

Besides the South China Sea, the US worries China is using the Belt and Road initiative to expand its maritime influence. A recent report presented to the US State Department, written by a pair of Harvard University scholars, says China is poised to gain control of other countries including the Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Micronesia using "debtbook diplomacy." US strategic analysts are particularly worried that South Pacific island countries such as Papua New Guinea are moving closer to China. This will affect US military operations in the Pacific, leading China to gradually break the "second island chain" restrictions, they argued.

There has never been a problem with freedom of navigation of commercial vessels in the South China Sea. Like other nations, China, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), wants to ensure military activities of US ship do not pose a security threat to it. This is not a violation of freedom of navigation but a legitimate act of safeguarding sovereignty and security.

At the Hudson event, Courtney also said the US should ratify the UNCLOS.

If the US did so, it will help enhance the "peaceful rule of law" that the congressman stressed. However, few believe the Trump administration, which is behaving against multilateralism and busy withdrawing from many international mechanisms, will follow Courtney's advice.

The US is following "rule of the power" rather than "peaceful rule of law." It wants the whole world to sheepishly abide by its own rules. The Trump administration has significantly increased military spending, renamed the "Pacific Command" as "Indo-Pacific Command," demonstrating an aggressive stance against China.

The Trump government also hopes to boost arms sales. It is trying to mobilize many Pacific countries and Taiwan to enhance anti-submarine warfare and maritime strike capabilities, which will bring the US military companies a steady flow of new orders.

Strategist Robert Kagan, with a Republican background, described the US under Trump as a "rogue superwpower." The Economist magazine accused the Trump government of "undermining the rules-based international order." What Courtney should do is not groundlessly blame China, but prevent "America First" becoming "Military First."

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

Key Words: China threat   sea   ASEAN  

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