What Are the U.S. and China Fighting Over?

By Fu Ying / Sept 1, 2016 / Bloomberg

As the leaders of China and the U.S. meet in Hangzhou ahead of this weekend’s Group of 20 summit, many would like to know whether differences over the South China Sea will cloud the bilateral relationship. The question is, what exactly are the two nations competing over in the area? And more importantly, can they find a mutually acceptable way to move forward?

The U.S. claims that its interest in the South China Sea is to ensure freedom of navigation. Indeed, critical shipping lanes run through the area, and keeping them open is important to all countries. China, a major global trading power, attaches no less importance to freedom of navigation than the U.S. does, perhaps even more.

Obviously, however, that’s not all the U.S. is concerned about. It’s worried mainly about preserving freedom of navigation for naval warships and other noncommercial vessels. Here, admittedly, there’s a gap between how China and the U.S. each interpret the relevant provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as corresponding customary rules of international law.

In particular, the two sides have significantly differing views on the kind of military activities allowed within another country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. China, as a developing country, highly values its national sovereignty and security. It holds that under UNCLOS, the principle of freedom of navigation shouldn’t be used to undermine the security of coastal countries. On the other hand, the U.S., as a global maritime power, has traditionally believed that its military is entitled to absolute freedom of navigation in other countries’ EEZs — including oceanographic surveying, surveillance and military exercises.

 Now, just as there’s no dispute over allowing freedom of navigation for commercial ships in the South China Sea, there’s no reason the two sides couldn’t also wisely manage their differences over the rules for naval vessels. What the U.S. really wants, though, goes beyond its expressed concerns.

In fact, the U.S. views frictions with China from a geo-strategic perspective, seeing the South China Sea dispute as a test of which power will predominate in the Asia-Pacific. Ever since U.S. leaders started talking about a “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, they’ve worked under the assumption that a stronger China will inevitably pursue expansionism — and thus needs to be countered by the U.S. and its allies.

Against this background, any move by China naturally looks like an attempt to weaken U.S. strategic primacy in the region. And at the same time, American rhetoric and activities clearly targeted at China are bound to trigger a strong Chinese reaction. Given such a “security dilemma,” the risk of escalated China-U.S. confrontation or even conflict is becoming increasingly serious.

The recent arbitration ruling in the case brought by the Philippines against China has aroused strong rhetorical reaction in China, which isn’t opposed to UNCLOS, or even to arbitration as a means of dispute settlement, but simply to the way this particular tribunal was constituted and chose to rule, which has been perceived as an abuse of power. Hopefully, given the fierce debate over the tribunal’s verdict, people in the region will again see the wisdom of dealing with such issues through friendly dialogue rather than confrontational means.

The countries bordering the South China Sea surely appreciate that tension stands in the way of regional integration and economic cooperation, to no one’s benefit. Recently, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appointed former President Fidel Ramos as a special envoy to China for an ice-breaking trip. When I was invited to meet with Ramos privately in Hong Kong, I clearly sensed the new Philippine administration’s willingness to improve relations with China. China and the Philippines are both Asian countries and I believe that as long as there’s good faith, it’s not beyond our reach to restore a relationship marked by friendship and cooperation. Read more…

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