High stakes in the waters of South China Sea

  • ASEAN+
  • Sunday, 03 Jul 2011

THE pledge by China and Vietnam to resolve peacefully their row over competing South China Sea territorial claims is a welcome respite.

It de-escalates tensions that rose worryingly following accusations by Hanoi that Chinese vessels had cut cables to its survey ships.

Predictably, a media war erupted, fuelling public sentiments on both sides incensed already by perceived slights to national honour.

The danger with media wars is that they are easy to start but difficult to end once the public mood has been aroused sufficiently to demand nothing but an outright victory.

Mercifully, that outcome was averted by a high-level meeting between China and Vietnam. The two neighbours have pledged to achieve a peaceful resolution of their dispute through “negotiations and friendly consultations”, according to Xinhua. That is how it should be.

However, what is important is that the respite should not turn into a tactical ploy to gain more time and embark on the next assertive round of a testing of the waters. This is a temptation that always awaits the more powerful side in a dispute.

Instead, it is essential that the contending parties refrain from any action that would raise the stakes higher in what is already a dangerous potential flashpoint in Asia.

More pointedly, raising the stakes would involve drawing in the United States as a key player. Ensuring freedom of navigation is a core American interest in the South China Sea issue.

The Chinese argue that freedom of navigation has not been affected by the territorial disputes. They are right – for now.

However, if a cycle of “escalation, de-escalation, waiting escalation” takes hold of strategic mindsets, weaker countries in the dispute will answer for themselves what they are asking already – whether they can live with the long-term ambitions of a rising China.

Some are looking to the US for countervailing support in an unequal dispute. Such requests for support will grow in direct proportion to the perceived strength of Chinese assertiveness. A spiral of insecurity would begin.

The way out is for the claimants to settle on a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea and move towards a resolution of the disputes based on international law. In the meanwhile, joint exploitation of the sea’s natural resources would give all the claimants another reason to stay at peace.

These higher stakes would be of an entirely different order. They would bring the claimants closer, not set them adrift in a sea of uncertainty. – Asia News Network

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