SPEAKING FREELY Steps toward trust in South China Sea
By Lyle Goldstein and Wu Xinbo
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With the cloud of the Ukraine crisis hanging over the thoughts of the White House, US President Barack Obama has arrived in East Asia to demonstrate America's toughness and its determination to carry through with its "rebalancing" to the Asia-Pacific in its defense strategy.
The tensions surrounding the recent trip of his Defense Secretary
Chuck Hagel to this region, however, amply suggest just how fraught the security situation has become in the Asia-Pacific region over the last few years. In a strained meeting earlier this month, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanchuan and Hagel traded sharp invectives. Indeed, Hagel was pointedly told: "The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win."
But such harsh words do not come as particularly surprising to anyone following the developing rivalry between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific over the last several years. In early 2009, a US surveillance ship and several Chinese craft were involved in a hostile stand-off. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's July 2010 declaration on a visit to Vietnam's capital that the US has "a national interest ... in the South China Sea" was not well received in Beijing.
Since the "pivot to the Asia-Pacific" was announced by the Obama Administration in late 2011, these strains have only intensified. At the end of last year, an American cruiser in the South China Sea had to make evasive maneuvers to avoid a Chinese naval ship seeking to drive it away from a Chinese naval exercise. A couple of weeks ago saw a tense stand-off between a China Coast Guard vessel and a Philippines boat trying to bring supplies to a beleaguered garrison on one of the myriad contested shoals.
On his visit to the Philippines, President Obama is sure to sound a clarion call for "freedom of navigation" and against Chinese "bullying". Meanwhile, Chinese leaders are certain to continue to demand that the US respect China's core interests and adhere sincerely to Washington's stated neutrality doctrine with respect to disputed maritime claims. Hawks in both Beijing and Washington, moreover, will undoubtedly press each respective leader to demonstrate ever more firm resolve with the conviction that the other side must surely back down. This script sounds ominously familiar to one a century ago in which the great powers "sleepwalked" into a catastrophic conflict.
We are advocating a different approach, one that is premised on restraint and compromise. There is simply no alternative to hard-headed and detailed negotiations over the fate of the various reefs and rocks of the South China Sea and related marine and hydro-carbon resources. However, as a preliminary step that will engender the trust necessary to begin such negotiations, we advocate for a novel linkage in US-China military relations.
The suggested linkage would entail the United States reducing its surveillance activities in the waters proximate to China. As part of this process of mutual accommodation and as a quid pro quo, China would take concrete steps to increase the transparency of its military.
Frequent US surveillance missions directed at China that take place in its immediate vicinity not only abets China's suspicion of US strategic intentions but also run the risk of causing unintended incidents between the two militaries in the air or on the sea, as have occurred in the past. In fact, decreasing surveillance off the Chinese coast should not entail a major sacrifice since alternative and much less provocative means, most obviously satellite reconnaissance, are available to collect information on Chinese military development.
Also, Washington need not compromise its valid right to conduct military operations within widespread exclusive economic zones, and such activities would still occur occasionally to demonstrate that right. Nevertheless, a reduction in the frequency of surveillance activities would send an important signal to Beijing about the US sensitivity to China's legitimate concerns as well as its sincerity for building a more positive and constructive security relationship with a rising China.
For China, further augmenting military transparency should not be too difficult, since this process has been underway for many years with quite impressive results. Nevertheless, three sample metrics that could be critical to such an agreement might be: 1) a service-by-service budgetary breakdown of allocations for salaries, operations, facilities, arms procurement and research; 2) a detailed five-year build plan for combat ships and aircraft; and 3) regular visits by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to Chinese naval facilities on Hainan Island in the context of China-ASEAN defense exchanges.
The surveillance-transparency linkage proposal that we are advocating will hardly eliminate US-China tensions in the Western Pacific. However, the compromise outlined here could go a long way toward calming the waters and preparing each side for the tough negotiations that form the only sensible path away from rivalry and disastrous military conflict.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Dr Lyle Goldstein, Associate Professor, China Maritime Studies Institute, US Naval War College, Newport, Rhodes Island. Dr Wu Xinbo is Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.