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Clashes over South China Sea pose a test to new E Asian Structure

10:06, June 15, 2011

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By Li Hongmei

South China Sea waters will be churned up if some regional countries insisted on risky ventures to address the so-called border issue. What is happening now is already inviting the global concerns--- Vietnam is using live ammunition in its war exercises in the waters of the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Philippine President Benigno Aquino's office stated it was renaming the South China Sea as the "West Philippine Sea" amid the mounting tensions with Beijing.

Viewed from the strategic perspective, the ongoing and escalating border disputes are not merely fighting for maritime rights, but posing a real test to the emerging regional structure characterized by the ever-growing Chinese influence due to its robust economy and "wooing diplomacy", and correspondingly, the shrinking US clout.

Why Vietnam and Philippines currently act as if they were ready to fight a proxy war representing US against China is virtually making a rash bet, expecting that their open confrontation with China would be vocally and materially backed by the U.S., and their saber-rattling rhetoric and practice could set a precedent for the future settlement of the long brewed disputes. And the concerned countries might also secretly calculate whether China, in response, would flex its economic and military muscles to force the small neighbors to bow down or it could be caught in an embarrassing dilemma as it has all the way called for a multi-lateral mechanism and claimed its rise a peaceful one.

Further, the U.S., while mourning for its dwindling predominance over the region and preparing for a desirable "comeback", is also maintaining sharp vigilance on China's increasingly assertive role in the Asia-Pacific region, which the U.S. describes as crucial to its national interest.

Washington has reason to fear that an integrated Asia or a new regional structure would gradually exclude the US. While Asian nations, especially American allies, insist on an "indispensable" US presence in the region, they also welcome Beijing's pledge about good neighborliness and equality.

It is actually no surprising that Vietnam turned out so aggressive this time. Their distrust in China is partially a legacy left over by history. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, angered Beijing during a visit to Vietnam last year by declaring the South China Sea a national interest of the US, but, boosted Vietnamese morale to provoke China.

Robert Gates, US defence secretary said, when he was making his final visit to Asia before stepping down as Pentagon chief later this month, that the US would maintain "robust military engagement" and increase port calls and naval engagements in the region. He also dismissed concerns that pressures on the Pentagon budget, as the US addresses its fiscal deficit, coupled with rising Chinese military budgets meant US influence in the region would wane.

"I will bet you a $100 that five years from now the United States' influence in this region is as strong if not stronger than it is today," he said.

What is noteworthy is that while Mr Gates expressed "concern" about the increase in incidents, his comments appeared to mark a sharp reversal from the tougher approach taken by the US government last year.

Perhaps, the heightened US attitude and sharpened rhetoric came partly in response to appeals from south-east Asian countries for a stronger US role in the region to balance China. While China looms increasingly large in the economic future of all Asian nations, virtually all those countries see the US playing an increasingly important security role at the same time.

Of course, no country wants to be forced to choose between the US and China, as it is by no means a win-win deal. But the U.S. hegemony over the region is something of a lingering monster overpowering these small allies--hard to evade, and even harder to resist.

That might explains why even countries drawn into China's orbit by the great sucking sound of its economy – a sound that has been amplified by the sweet promise of free trade agreements – want also to limit the spread of Beijing's influence and eagerly seek counterbalances to Chinese power

Further, the unfolded South China Sea bickering has raised concerns that the incumbent global naval power and a rising China could easily get into a conflict in China's neighborhood.

Vietnam, for instance, would spare no time to take advantage of China-US conflicts and create chance to showcase and magnify its regional interests. Viewed by others, China is a giant dwarfing Vietnam, and therefore it will be much easier for Vietnam to rally international support and sympathy.

South China Sea, for China, is not only confined to a border issue, but more of a visible challenge to China's diplomacy. Even if the diplomatic channel always remains accessible, and China is always seeking settlement through negotiation and talks, China needs a military foresight and it is also advisable to make some preparations for action.

"Good-neighbor" policy acts as China's diplomatic guideline in the region, as China counts on a friendly neighborhood for its sustainable development. Without peace close-by, how can China go global and its navy touch blue? How can China fulfill its international peace-keeping mission as a standing member of UN Security Council?

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."