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Unwise to elevate "South China Sea" to be core interest ?

10:04, August 27, 2010

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By Li Hongmei

The seemingly well-founded statement, that Beijing told the US officials that the South China Sea is a "core national interest," giving the area the same status as Taiwan and Tibet as a place China is prepared to fight over, is actually from quite a moot source. It was reportedly released by the American media which quoted some Chinese high-ranking official as saying that China has already elevated the issue of South China Sea to be part of its "core interests" in a closed-door meeting with his US counterpart.

But why the relevant US officials offer to unveil the information at the allegedly closed-door meeting to the media is really noteworthy. The move in itself betrays the US strategic intentions over the region---to fray the nerves of the Chinese neighbors and convert South China Sea into the arena on which the U.S. would, acting on the interests of some Southeast Asian countries, launch a proxy tussle with China, and would go further to internationalize the issue of South China Sea.

Sure enough, the claim of "core interest" set up a new torrent of the US-led clamor threatening to overwhelm the region and stir the world. "That really rattled the US and Southeast Asian nations," says Renato de Castro, who teaches international relations at De La Salle university in Manila. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded last month, at an Asian security conference, by declaring a US "national interest in the South China Sea," which matched other recent US moves to remind China of Washington's intention to remain a "Pacific Power."

More over, some even acted overzealously by taking reference to China's diplomatic formula set by the late leader Deng Xiaoping, remarking Beijing's "core-interest claim" serves as further evidence of a daring departure from Deng's policy of "taoguangyanghui" toward international relations - meaning to keep a low profile when in an unfavorable position and wait patiently for opportunities to gain the upper hand.

And in the mean time, the current US naval exercises are just sending a message to the Southeast Asia, that the US remains a dominant presence in the region and that nobody can challenge them. The stepped-up American involvement is widely taken as pushback against the "increasingly assertive Chinese behavior."

Some Chinese military strategists and scholars, however, think the statement of "core interest" is in all likelihood a misinterpretation by the U.S, intentionally or not, and which still needs straightening out. Besides, it has so far yet to be traced to the exact source. In addition, they also believe incorporating the South China Sea into the package of China's core national interests is, at least currently, not a wise move.

First, the claim would upset and enrage the US, who has all along enjoyed preeminence and played hegemony over the region. The US, as a self-claimed "Pacific power", would spare no time in flaying China for its intention to carve out spheres of influence in East Asia, and thereby raise the stakes in deciding who the real future ruler of the region will be.

Then, the claim, as it were, could strike a nerve with China's neighboring countries, and the alertness to China's "naval ambitions" might ripple across the ocean to Australia, abutting the Southeast Asian countries.

Last but not the least, the claim is not in accordance with the international standard practice. By International Law, China has the indisputable sovereignty over the islands in South China Sea, the claim of "core interest", hence, is just like "drawing a snake and adding feet to it"---something superfluous, if it were true.

Currently, when the Sino-US wrestling match over South China Sea is unfolding, the claim could serve as nothing but a handle to facilitate the US to bring its carrier close to the Chinese home and make the regional issue international, as US has long coveted, considering that what the US seeks is not just a return to the region, but a bid to strengthen US leadership and its economic, military, and political presence in East Asia.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.


Li HongLi Hong

After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to english.people.com.cn in March 2009.

Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.

Dai MinJohn
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."