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Provoking China on South China Sea issues is a dangerous tactic

2015-02-02 09:10:53       source:South China Morning Post

By Mark Valencia

Cornering China could have dire consequences for the region. More vision and wisdom are needed by all concerned.

The governments of the Philippines, Vietnam and the US have, in recent months, lashed out at China over its behaviour in the South China Sea. This includes reclaiming land around some of its occupied but disputed features in the Spratlys; violating the self-restraint provision of the 2002 declaration of conduct agreed on by China and Asean; undertaking unilateral activities like hydrocarbon exploration in disputed maritime areas, preventing others from doing so; and, in general, bullying the smaller claimants.

Many analysts and the national media have joined the fray by supporting their countries' positions. Given the regional security implications, it is time to inject some balance into this narrative.

This is not a defence of China's actions; some of the criticism is deserved. Like many countries, China's maritime policies and behaviour have been a mix of good and bad, even ugly. But some criticism by governments and their nationalistic analysts and media is exaggerated or biased as they seek to "blame and shame" China and demonise it as an arrogant bully. Worse, some of it is so hypocritical as to be ludicrous.

First, all the claims to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands have weaknesses when measured against the international standard of continuous, effective occupation, control and administration, as well as acquiescence by other claimants.

Second, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have undertaken reclamation on disputed features they occupy and have built airstrips and ports. Why have they not been criticised?

Third, the Philippines has publicly and formally criticised China for its "historical" claim in the South China Sea. But it had a similarly questionable historical claim there until 2009 (the so-called Treaty Limits) as well as a claim to islands, seabed and waters within Kalayaan. In fact, these claims have not been formally rescinded.

Fourth, all the other claimants have undertaken unilateral activities such as oil exploration, fishing, arrest of foreign fishermen, and scientific research in areas claimed by others, including China. Why are their activities not a violation of the declaration of conduct's "self-restraint" provision?

Fifth, China argues that the Philippines and now Vietnam are violating the declaration's provision that says "the parties undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned" (emphasis added). In China's view, they have "internationalised" the issue, the Philippines by filing a formal complaint with an international arbitration panel, and both by publicly appealing for the support of outside powers.

The US is involved because of its alliance with the Philippines and the fact it is now trying to draw closer, militarily, to Vietnam. Indeed, it may even provide Vietnam with maritime surveillance aircraft that it could use to help keep tabs on China's activities. This would obviously not be considered a friendly act by China.

Washington often urges Beijing to obey "international law" but has itself not joined some 166 countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or several other popular international treaties. Referring to the South China Sea situation, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Daniel Russel has asserted that "bigger nations cannot bully the small". Perhaps he has forgotten the history of US relations vis-à-vis Cuba, Nicaragua, and many others.

Last year, Vietnam's confrontation with China over its oil rig provided an opportunity for anti-China Vietnamese to vent their anger. One result was the deadly anti-Chinese riots. In turn, Vietnamese policy and actions have stimulated Chinese antipathy and distrust. This has led to increased strategic thinking about the possibility of Vietnam becoming a pawn in US-China rivalry for dominance in the region. Vietnam's pandering to the US is disingenuous, distasteful and unworthy, and shows a lack of understanding of US strategy for the region as well as disrespect for the millions of Vietnamese who suffered and died to reject US influence.

As Vietnam's leaders should well know, China has been - and always will be - an unpredictable giant on its northern and maritime borders. In stark contrast, the US presence in the region is comparatively fresh, fickle and probably fleeting.

The moral is that countries (and their supporters) who live in glass houses should not throw stones - at least not before boarding up their own windows. They need to remove their nationalistic blinkers, be realistic and think more long term and in the interests of the region and political centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in security.

Otherwise, they could well be contributing to the region again becoming a pawn in a Great Power chess game. Cornering and publicly embarrassing China on South China Sea issues could have dire consequences for the region. More vision, wisdom and balance are needed by all concerned.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post