How China and America Can Find a Way To Get Along in the South China Sea

The essence of the South China Sea arbitration is to break through the “nine-dash line” that China claims. The Chinese view has been clear and consistent: arbitration is ineffective and has no ability to restrain China; China neither accepts nor recognizes it. Under no circumstance is Chinese territorial and oceanic sovereignty to be influenced by arbitration decisions. China both opposes and rejects any actions or advocacy stemming from such arbitration. At present, all public discourse is focused on one issue, namely whether the U.S. Navy will use arbitration to advance its “freedom of navigation patrols” and, in doing so, cause Chinese and American military force to cross swords.

How could a nautical territory dispute between China and the Philippines create such sharp antagonism between China and the U.S., who seem to have their fingers on the trigger?

The real reason is because the underlying Chinese and American power structure has undergone a fundamental transformation. China has started to become the strongest regional economic and military power and thus has all the more ability to protect its interests. China’s strategy in the South China Sea actually has not changed, and Americans are clear on this. Those who call over and over again for China to fully explain its military objectives are in reality just seeking to create a “China threat” narrative. Chinese deeds and actions have not exceeded the bounds of its national defense policy; China has no extra-territorial military bases, nor can it dispatch warships or planes to America’s vicinity. And as for [Chinese] activities in the South China Sea, these are no more than measures to improve control of China’s own territory, with the use of its own installations to better transportation through the sea. It is just as the American scholar Jin* said: If China were like America, with bases in Brazil or Mexico, perhaps such “stuff” could be taken to bargain with the U.S. The implication, moreover, is that China does not have an out in the South China Sea problem.

In China’s point of view, the strategic situation in the South China Sea must evolve to a new equilibrium, because the sea is at China’s front door. China maintains that only by strengthening the military presence at this front door and changing the military balance can national security interests be guarded more effectively. After over a decade of effort, China has already become a major military force in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, capable of effectively interfering with and opposing America’s spying forays at its front door. The Chinese military has the power to stop American forces outside of this door.

The bulk of America’s worries center around a fear that the unbroken growth of Chinese power would challenge the leading American order in the Asia-Pacific and become a source of strategic pressure. For America, the South China Sea is a serious source of regional instability. America must use tricks, like new military deployments and offshore manipulation, to consolidate its strategic advantage and strengthen the relationships with its allies.

Looking at the differing strategic goals of these two countries, it is still possible to rein in conflict. The South China Sea arbitration could be a risky bottleneck, but it could also decrease risks.

At first glance, it seems China’s growing military strength in the region has simply “agitated” America, thus making the situation all the more difficult to control. However, a change in the makeup of military forces in the South China Sea was inevitable. The rise of Chinese economic prowess naturally generates a rise in military power. This military power is not aimed at wresting away Asia or the world from U.S. hegemony, but merely aims to better protect Chinese sovereignty. America ought to understand this and respect Chinese strategic designs, learning to get along with a military power that can work with the U.S. in the region to preserve balance. This is the future of U.S.-China great power relations, and this future should not be influenced by the so-called South China Sea arbitration.

Chinese and American military mechanisms, for the control of warships and planes in “close contact” scenarios, are advancing. Both sides have signed the “Notification of Major Military Activities Memorandum of Understanding” and the “Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters.” Additionally, Chinese warships participated in the American-led RIMPAC naval exercises. High-level leadership on both sides has led to the establishment of telephone communication channels. These continually growing mechanisms will undoubtedly slash the risk of conflict. At the very least, with the two militaries’ willingness to institute risk control mechanisms, it is clear neither side’s strategic goals have reached the “you die so I live” conflict stage. Following the South China Sea arbitration, both parties can also further promote communication and negotiation for risk reduction and use perfected mechanisms to strictly monitor implementation standards.

In the long view, the best possible regulation (that is, outcome) for the United States in the region could very well be a balance of power. More effective [risk] control mechanisms are determined by a more equal power structure. There once was a writer who penned some very wise words when writing on friendship: the quality of a relationship lay in its distance. This phrase can be applied to the relationship between the U.S. and China—the best method of control is sometimes to leave a bit of space.

*Translator’s Note: The author’s intended reference is unclear.

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