Photo: DVIDS/Dustin Kelling
The world has many trouble spots that have long posed a risk to peace and stability — the Persian Gulf, Israel and its neighbours, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, to name the most obvious. One looming danger is far from the usual arc of crisis. It’s the South China Sea, where territorial disputes and national ambitions are heightening tension and posing a small but not insignificant risk of escalation.China has long been at odds with many of its neighbours over various islands in these waters. A few months ago, Chinese and Philippine naval vessels entered a tense standoff over the disputed Scarborough Shoal. In March, China detained Vietnamese it accused of fishing illegally near the Paracel Islands, which it occupies over the protests of other countries in the area.
This summer, Beijing announced it would install troops on one of the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. Oh, and China has been quarreling noisily with Japan over islands in the East China Sea.
The general problem arises from Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the area, and its urge to restore what it sees as its historic sovereignty. Its neighbours, however, read history differently, and they regard China with a mix of age-old hostility and new concern about its rising power. The presence of oil and other valuable resources has raised the stakes.
But the disagreements have implications beyond the locals. As the dominant naval power in the Pacific and the world, the United States has an interest in preserving that position as well as maintaining unrestricted navigation in the region. It sees such freedom as crucial to worldwide trade, much of which is borne on merchant vessels. It also has ties with many of the countries currently at odds with Beijing, which see Washington as a vital counterweight to their giant neighbour.
These clashes are one reason the Obama administration announced a “pivot to Asia” earlier this year, which included the deployment of Marines to Australia. The goal is to provide support for friends as well as facilitate peaceful settlement of disagreements.
But the shift has evoked anger from the Chinese, who advise that the U.S. gracefully accept its inevitable decline. They insist the disputes should be resolved strictly by those countries that are “directly concerned,” which pointedly excludes America.
When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Beijing last week, the Chinese rebuffed her call for regional negotiations — and canceled a scheduled meeting between her and Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to become China’s top leader later this year.
With its overbearing manner, though, China has done an excellent job of frustrating its own goals. The more it throws its weight around, the more its neighbours are motivated to coalesce in self-protection — and to seek shelter in the arms of the U.S., whose military capabilities dwarf those of China.
Over the years, the Americans have had their share of differences with Vietnam and the Philippines, among others. But these nations know Washington can be trusted more than Beijing because it has no territorial ambitions in the region. Its chief interests — free navigation and nonviolent settlement of disagreements — align well with theirs.
Maybe one of these days the Chinese government will come to see that these principles pose no threat to its position. As a huge country with growing wealth and military power, China has to tread gently to avoid provoking a backlash that will hinder its ambitions. It has much to gain from multilateral cooperation and much to lose from unilateral assertiveness.
Many people in the Chinese government and military think the U.S. is essentially hostile and determined to prevent China from gaining its rightful place in the Pacific and the world. But in many ways, China is proving to be its own worst enemy. ___
(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune
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