Beijing is not seeking hegemony
The multiple disputes of Islands, reefs, and atolls in the South China Sea are a century old tale. They are revived again after 2011 as result of American policy – pivot to Asia to rebalance its position in Asia-Pacific.
The Asia-Pacific region is the new centre of American strategic focus as China rises. To Washington, Beijing has been emerging as a powerful actor in the South China Sea. America wants to contain China again.
This is America’s second containment of China. The first containment took place from 1949 to 1971. After that Americans changed their view about China and withdrew their support to Taiwan. The main purpose of the American second containment of China is to contain its strategic ambitions in the region.
Vietnam has become a new US ally after President Obama has lifted decades-long military embargo on Vietnam. Japan has militarily reasserted itself after legislation in July last year. The Philippines is already toeing an anti-Chinese campaign in the South China Sea. The country has filed a law suit against China in the international court of arbitration at the Hague.
Beijing, by no means, is not seeking hegemony in the South China Sea. China has strong presence in the South China Sea because of its size, population, and historical presence. China possesses a number of islands and atolls in the South China Sea. China looks at the development of many of these islands for commercial use to link up with its Maritime Silk Road plan in the 21st century. It is building new runways and ports and waterways. New artificial islands are being created. The United States, an outside power in the South China Sea, speaks in favour of a number of countries that have counter-claims in the South China Sea against China. This has created a tense situation.
Paracel Island is controlled by China and counter-claimed by Vietnam. Scarborough Shoal is claimed by the Philippines. Diaoyu/Senkaku is controlled by Japan and counter-claimed by China. Taiwan also has a claim to takeover Diaoyu. Taiwan would not accept Chinese air defence zone in South China Sea as it proclaimed. All these claims and counter-claims fan an uneasy posture in the South China Sea.
The United States wants Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan to assert their positions in the disputed waters. They want to block any move made by China.
For China, its 60 percent of merchandise trade goes through the South China Sea. China does not want unrest in the region. The powerful countries want to disrupt China’s merchandise trade.
This month the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague might issue its verdict on the South China Sea. One has to wait and see how China would respond to this verdict. It looks that Beijing will not accept any ruling against its interests as it repeatedly stated. It would probably ignore the verdict and would not participate in it.
At Shangri-La’s recent dialogue at Singapore, China emphasised over its sovereignty and asked for handling differences appropriately. They should focus on commonalities rather than differences, told Professor Jia Qingguo of Peking University. However, differences are looming large with stated positions of each state; the emerging gulf is unlikely to be bridged.
Regionalism is also being contested in the South China Sea. The United States and Japan along with a number of like-minded states are vigorously pursuing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) to create the regional free trade bloc. China is out of the TTP and it opposes the bloc. On the other hand, China has been proposing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP pact may draw East Asian countries closer but the situation is not clear yet. These free trade blocs also dim the prospects of peace in the South China Sea. Is there a middle way out?
It looks that the territorial row in the South China Sea is most crucial dispute between China and the United States in their bilateral negotiations. The former has no direct conflict. Nor it is a claimant state in any of these disputes. It is only taking sides with its old and new allies in the troubled waters in the South China Sea. United States proposes not to unilaterally resolve these issues but through negotiations, rule of law, and freedom of navigation for all nations. China outright rejects all these proposals as they interfere in its sovereignty and historical rights.
At least, China would prefer a negotiated resolution of these disputes by all parties concerned as discussed between the Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong’s meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin in Phnom Penh on 6 June.