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South China Sea tensions need to be cooled down, not hyped up

2021-05-24 15:43:12       source:South China Morning Post

April 30, 2021

The South China Sea situation is tense and dangerous. Increasing militarisation by the United States and China – and others within the region and outside it – is enhancing the possibility of a clash.


Indeed, the US and China seem locked in a duel driven by mutual distrust; each claiming to be responding to the other and neither wanting to de-escalate first. This situation calls for calm and cool heads from all countries, and especially from supposedly objective analysts.


But, instead, what we read is hyperbole and hype. This egging on plays into the hands of some militarists who seem to want confrontation and conflict.


This is no longer about who is at fault, or more at fault. There are no angels in the South China Sea. All claimants have taken actions that go against the self-restraint agreed in the 2002 Asean-China non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea.


China may be seen as the worst offender but the widespread lack of trust is a result of violations of principle and not the degree thereof.


Moreover, they all have South China Sea claims that are not consonant with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

(Unclos). And all have claims over Spratly features with serious legal weaknesses.


Compounding the problem, the US – which has inserted itself in the imbroglio – has not ratified Unclos but enforces its interpretations with gunboat diplomacy. In this deteriorating situation, hyperbolic finger-pointing, especially by analysts, is unhelpful.


The most recent examples of such hype came in reaction to the massing of Chinese boats at Whitsun Reef.


After Philippine defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana called on China to "stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory", an international chorus of concern and clarion calls for action followed, aided and abetted by leading analysts. Even the European Union chimed in. Much of it seemed to be from the same script.


China was accused of violating the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, with one leading analyst saying the Chinese vessels were not fishing but "trolling for territory". Another urged the international community to draw a line in the sand now. Still others warned that the massing of Chinese boats was a threat to occupy new features.


Strictly speaking, the flare-up is between China and the Philippines. But the elephant in the room is the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty – whether China's actions cause the Philippines to invoke it, and if it does, whether the US will respond militarily.


The US is under some pressure from the region to ensure China does not occupy more features– as it did with Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal. On March 31, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told his Philippine counterpart that "the United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order".


Given this context, it was particularly unhelpful when headlines blared that "Philippines’ Duterte would send navy ships in South China Sea to assert claim over resources" and that "It will be bloody".


What Duterte actually said was: "We want to remain friends. We want to share whatever it is [...] But when we start to mine, when we start to get whatever it is in the bowels of the [South] China Sea, by that time [...] I will send my grey ships there to stake a claim."


There were a lot of "ifs" in his rambling response to criticism for being soft on China and they pertain to possible future scenarios – not the present. What he said was that if China started drilling for oil in a disputed area, then so will he. This is a far cry from preparing for a fight.


On March 31, a Philippine military plane carrying local journalists flew over the area and was warned to "stay away" and "leave immediately". That was hyped as threatening. But it is normal practice for the military to state its legal position in such situations. The Chinese warning could be justified if the aircraft – as reported – flew without permission over or within 12 nautical miles of Calderon Reef, which China claims and occupies.


When a Chinese patrol boat approached a yacht full of journalists looking for a story by provocatively sailing near a disputed reef, the journalists hyped it as a threatening pursuit.


One analyst said the Chinese boats at Whitsun Reef were "a test of the Biden administration" and their departure meant: "The Chinese have blinked."

Yet the boats may have been legally anchored if considered to be within the territorial sea around a China-claimed rock. To the dismay of some pundits, a country can indeed own a rock in another's exclusive economic zone. Or the boats may have been legally taking shelter from bad weather, as China claimed.


China's maritime militia is real and can easily be perceived as intimidating. Moreover, China has certainly been aggressively promoting and defending its claims in the South China Sea. But what should have been a storm in a teacup was hyped out of all proportion.


Indeed, some analysts and politicians appeared to be trying to goad the US into military action in the South China Sea. Objectivity, fairness and balance–the supposed ethics of independent analysts–are increasingly hard to find in analyses of China's actions in the South China Sea.


It is important not to jump to conclusions. Decision-makers and those who brief them should not believe everything they read–even from supposedly objective analysts. Hype is hazardous and unhelpful.


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

Link: https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3131328/south-china-sea-tensions-need-be-cooled-down-not-hyped