South China Sea: Cooperation or confrontation?

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“COOPERATE where we can; confront when we must.”

Strong words from US Pacific Command commander Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr. last June 4 at the 15th Annual International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia Security Summit, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore.

Harris said, “We want to cooperate with China in all domains as much as possible, so we have to have a view, and I have a view of cooperation where we can, but we have to confront them if we must.

“I would rather that we didn’t have to, but we have to operate from a position of strength against all outcomes, and that’s why you have the Pacific Command, among other things, out there.” (Report by Karen Parrish, DoD News, Defense Media Activity)


On the side of China, Adm. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Chinese military’s Joint Staff Department, dismissed what he characterized as US interference in Asian security issues, and rebuffed accusations that Beijing risked isolating itself through its assertive behavior and expansive claims in the South China Sea.

“We were not isolated in the past, we are not isolated now, and we will not be isolated in the future,” Sun said at the same Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of Asian and Western defense officials. He criticized other countries for retaining a “Cold War mentality” when dealing with China, saying they may only “end up isolating themselves.”

This reaction came about when US Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Saturday told the conference that China risked erecting a “Great Wall of self-isolation.” He urged Beijing to abide by international law and respect the outcome of The Hague arbitration case, which was filed by the Philippine government in 2013 in a bid to curtail China’s territorial assertions in the South China Sea. The ruling is expected within weeks.

China’s denunciations of the tribunal and its legal authority dominated the discussions at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Several Asian and Western defense chiefs—including those from Japan, Malaysia, Britain and France—urged compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), under which the tribunal was established, though only a few of them referred directly to China.

“The timing of this conference was very sensitive for China, coming just ahead of the tribunal ruling,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Chinese were very much on the defensive.”

A senior Chinese delegate admitted as much, saying they face an uphill task in overcoming foreign propaganda against Beijing. “International public opinion is still being controlled by the Western world,” said Maj. Gen. Jin Yinan, a professor at China’s National Defense University. “In such unfavorable circumstances, we must still do our best to use public forums to explain China’s position.” (Source: “Maritime Spat Simmers as US, China Talk,” by Chun Han Wong)

There seems to be a never-ending word war between the US and China when it comes to the disputed territories in the South China Sea. Such confrontational exchange of fiery words were also carried over at the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which started Monday, June 6, in Beijing.

The intent of the high-level talks, which President Barack Obama launched in 2009, is to try to find common ground. US officials, for instance, have said they would seek Beijing’s help in applying pressure on North Korea over its nuclear program. Last week, though, Washington took additional steps to cut off Pyongyang from the global financial system—a move that could expose China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, to negative economic effects. (Ibid)

“China and the US need to increase mutual trust,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the opening of the annual strategic dialogue, calling for redoubling of efforts for the two powers to manage conflicts and avoid strategic misjudgment.

“Some disputes may not be resolved for the time being, but both sides should take a ‘pragmatic and constructive’ attitude toward those issues,” he said. “The vast Pacific should be a stage for cooperation, not an area for competition.”

Speaking for the US, Secretary of State John Kerry called for a “diplomatic solution” to the problem.

“We are looking for a peaceful resolution to the dispute in the South China Sea and oppose any country resolving claims through unilateral action,” he said, referring to China’s increasingly aggressive expansion in the area.

The Beijing dialogue is perhaps the most important meeting between the world’s two largest economic and military powers, giving them a chance to seek agreement and iron out disputes on a range of issues related to security and economics.

The meeting is the eighth of its kind and is set to cover a number of key issues beyond the South China Sea, including climate change, cyber-security, terrorism, trade and economic cooperation. (Source: Agence France-Presse)

Despite the “confrontational overheated talks at the Shangri-la Dialogue, Xi and Kerry tried their best to muster diplomacy and cool heads at the forum. This is the other side of mutual agreement and cooperation that both parties have to face in order to live peacefully and avoid circumstances that might lead to confrontation.

Let us all hope for the best, in the meantime.

Erick San Juan, PhD, is a political analyst, book author, writer, forum moderator, and TV and radio commentator. He is also managing director of NewsAsia and formerly director IV of the National Security Council.

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1 Comment

  1. arnel amador on

    geopolitics at play under different clothing. the question is, where are we in this equation…