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More Trouble in the South China Sea
I have been writing in this space of the potential for disputes in the South China Sea to escalate rapidly when we least expect it and the past few days simmering tensions have indeed threatened to boil over as the U.S. strongly condemned a move by China in the region.
Much of the South China Sea is rich with minerals and natural resources and China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and others have been tussling over the development of oil and natural gas in particular. It’s also about the control of critical trade routes.
For its part, China basically claims all of the South China Sea, but what concerned its neighbors and Washington is China’s announcement it would establish a military garrison on the island of Sansha, long a disputed plot that China in June elevated to administrative status, giving it control of other islands, commonly referred to as the Spratlys, Paracels and the Macclesfield Bank. The islands are mostly undeveloped, but China wants to develop Sansha and promote tourism, which would bolster its case for sovereignty.
The U.S. State Department on Friday issued a statement:
“China upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.”
China’s foreign ministry office condemned the statement, while the following is from a government mouthpiece.
The U.S. Department of State criticized China over the establishment of the Sansha city and garrison last week. U.S. action was partial to Vietnam and the Philippines, and may encourage them to further oppose China.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its strong opposition to the statement Saturday. The two powers had a rare stormy diplomatic quarrel over territorial disputes in Southeast Asia.
It comes as no surprise that the U.S. is increasingly backing Vietnam and the Philippines on the South China Sea issue. When these two countries have taken the initiative over this issue, the U.S.’s attitude seems more neutral. But once China has accumulated some advantage, Washington instantly gives up its position of neutrality to balance China.
The city of Sansha has been established. China will certainly not change its mind because of some comments from the U.S. The latest U.S. statement will have zero influence on China.
Although the U.S. statement encourages Vietnam and the Philippines, these two countries will not believe that this statement can really change the situation in the South China Sea. Meanwhile without the statement from Washington, Hanoi and Manila would not stop provoking China.
It is true that the U.S. has influence in the South China Sea. But obviously, the U.S. cannot do whatever it wants. Vietnam and the Philippines were very active in provoking China not long ago, which was potentially influenced by the U.S.
But those days have passed, and the U.S. can no longer cause tempests in the South China Sea only by a wink or a cough. Washington’s influence in the South China Sea is dropping.
Current tensions in the South China Sea have put countries in the region on alert. Further provocations from the U.S. would not necessarily be followed by Hanoi and Manila. They might even be suspicious of U.S. intensions.
Although China has no plan to solve disputes in this region immediately, China will not allow Vietnam and the Philippines to take advantage of U.S. power to decide the balance of the South China Sea at will.
After collecting some benefits from the first round of provocations in the South China Sea, the U.S. seems to believe this kind of small trick could be used again and again, and continues to disrupt the situation in this region.
But all involved parties in the South China Sea expect peace instead of unrest. Only by meeting these real expectations can the U.S. maintain its influence in this region.
A statement in an editorial for the People’s Daily – another government mouthpiece – went further.
“The statement by the U.S. side confuses right and wrong, strongly misleads public opinion, sends the wrong signal and should be sternly refuted. We can completely shout to the U.S.: Shut up.”