South China Sea: Cooperation or Confrontation? by Erick San Juan, PhD

‘Cooperate where we can; confront when we must.’ — Strong words from U.S. Pacific Navy commander  Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. last June 4 during the 15th annual International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia Security Summit 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, Defence Media Activity)

And on the side of China, Adm. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Chinese military’s Joint Staff Department, dismissed what he characterized as U.S. interference in Asian security issues, and rebuffed accusations that Beijing risked isolating itself through its assertive behaviour 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,” Adm. Sun said at the  same Singapore Dialogue, an annual gathering of Asian and Western defence officials. Instead, 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 U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter on 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 [Singapore] Dialogue. Several Asian and Western defence chiefs—including those from Japan, Malaysia, Britain and France—urged compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or 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 Defence University. “In such unfavourable circumstances, we must still do our best to use public forums to explain China’s position.” (Source: Maritime Spat Simmers as U.S., China Talk by Chun Han Wong)

There seems to be a never-ending word war between the United States 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 on June 6 in Beijing.

The intent of the high-level talks, which US President Obama launched in 2009, is to try to find common ground. US officials, for instance, have said they would seek Beijing’s help in pressuring North Korea over its nuclear program. 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,” Xi said at the opening of the annual strategic dialogue, calling for redoubling of efforts for the two powers to manage conflicts and avoid strategic misjudgement”.

“Some disputes may not be resolved for the time being, but both sides should take a “pragmatic and constructive” attitude towards those issues.

“The vast Pacific should be a stage for cooperation, not an area for competition,” he said.

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, China’s leader Xi Jinping and US Secretary of State John Kerry tried their best to muster diplomacy and cool heads at the Beijing Dialogue. This is the other side of mutual agreement and cooperation that they have to face in order to live peacefully and avoid circumstances that might lead to confrontation. Let us all hope for the best, for the meantime.

Updated: 07/02/2016 — 19:13:55