Why does speculation grow in South China Sea

08:27, August 03, 2011      

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The convergence a number of factors — the U.S. strategic shift and its interference in Asia as well as China's rapid development and the conflicting interests of some countries — is complicating the issue of the South China Sea

Three key pieces of background information can help us better observe the issue. First, there are economic factors. Soaring oil prices, the advancement of techniques to explore marine petroleum and the demand for energy-producing resources in South China Sea are becoming more and more prominent.

Particularly for countries in neighboring areas, oil means GDP growth. For instance, PetroVietnam's annual revenue in 2010 accounted for 24 percent of the country's GDP. According to Business Monitor International, the Philippine's demand on petroleum from 2010 to 2020 will increase by 33.7 percent, natural gas 104.6 percent, which would speed up the country's exploration and exploitation of oil and gas resources in the South China Sea to alleviate dependency on energy import.

The second is a strategic shift by the United States. The United States shifted its strategic emphasis from anti-terrorism to Asia since Obama took office because of Asia's rapid economic growth and the new chapter in regional economic and trade integration.

The United States, which is in a crucial period of economic recovery, realized the hope of economic growth lies in Asia. As a result, it must increase strategic investment to strengthen its leading position in Asia. Some ASEAN member countries are traditionally US allies, and U.S. influence has deep roots in the region. They are expecting the United States to return to Asia. Especially those countries that have sovereignty disputes with China hope U.S. involvement will make the issue more international.

The third is China's rapid growth, which makes China the strongest economic engine in Asia. Some Asian countries look for a ride but they have misgivings about China's rise due to traditional ideology, historical disputes and economic competition. They make use of the U.S. involvement to balance interest with China and hope to reap profits from the balance between two big markets.

Three factors converge at the same time to heat up the issue of the South China Sea. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear at the ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers' Meetings in Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, in September 2010 that President Obama emphasized the importance of "ocean safety" and "free navigation" in a joint declaration with leaders of 10 ASEAN member countries. According to reports from the Associated Press, Obama released a firm statement to China to ensure the right over sovereign waters and free navigation that China claimed.

It is clear that the assertions made by the United States are groundless. The fact is that free navigation in South China Sea is closely associated with robust economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington's statement is nothing but excuse. The United States wants to highlight its leading position, assure those who want to balance interests with China with U.S. involvement and reap the largest benefit from strategy that utilizes Asia-Pacific nations to contain China. Its intention is to make China "a responsible member" of a U.S.-dominated system. Strategist said that the United States’ high-profile involvement in the South China Sea brought heavy security pressure in South China Sea.

The United States is the leading military force in the region, and its involvement makes the situation more complex. Regular marine exercises are even directed against China. What is more, some American media and scholars publicly agitate for U.S. involvement in the South China Sea. An editorial in Washington demanded that the Pentagon support the Philippines on the issue.

However it is not easy for the US to form a faction and even stir up troubles in the region with its traditional influence. US magazine Diplomatic published an article in the June edition that the biggest obstacle the United States encounters in the process of checking China's endeavor came from the difficult choice the Southeast Asian nation face on U.S. presence in the region.

What is the real intention of US' involvement in the South China Sea? To balance interests with China or rope allies in or form rules and regulations for Asia, its final goal is economic benefit and its own prosperity. It is easy to find Washington's "complicated feelings" from the shift of U.S. stance on the issue at the Shangri-La Dialogues and ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers' Meetings in 2010 and 2011.

The U.S. stance will have a major impact on where the issue of South China Sea is headed. Washington will continue to pin down China with the so-called excuse of "free navigation," involve more countries and push the issue to be further internationalized. Furthermore, the United States expects more interests from regional development through its active participation. But participation means cooperation with China.

Although the tension in the South China Sea would bring advantages to some U.S. interest groups and help it strengthen its leading role in Asia, it does no good to the United States. Even the countries that hope to make the issue more international with U.S. involvement realize that. Generally speaking, the United State's strategic shift to the east and return to Asia bring both challenges and opportunities to China and itself.

The author is Ding Gang, People's Daily's correspondent in Thailand, and the article is translated by People's Daily Online.
 
 
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