Sparring over South China Sea is a dangerous game: The Nation

Crew members of China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea on May 5.
Crew members of China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea on May 5.PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial on May 29, the newspaper urges China to abandon its aggressive mindset and pursue talks with the US to prevent any aggravation.

China has been behaving aggressively in the South China Sea for some time now, in what can only be seen as the country's efforts to assert sovereignty over disputed territories also claimed by some members of Asean.

Needless to say, such behaviour is not healthy for the overall atmosphere of peace and stability in the region.

The struggle to control the sea has become important because it has long been the route used by all sorts of nations, plus about US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) worth of annual trade passes through its waters.

The dispute has forced one of the claimants, the Philippines, to turn to an international arbitration court to resolve the row.

The court is expected to rule in a few weeks' time on the case brought by Manila.

It is hoped that China will accept the outcome of the court's decision and work with the Philippines and other claimants on a mutually acceptable resolution.

But no one is holding their breath on this, as China refuses to accept the court's jurisdiction even though Beijing has ratified the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas. It is under this treaty that the case is being considered.

For some years now, China has been transporting tonnes of dirt and gravel to turn small reefs in the disputed territory into artificial islands.

Military installations and airstrips have been built on these islands.

Face-to-face tensions between Chinese naval patrol boats and local fishermen are testimony to how Beijing has been interfering with navigation and their right to fish.

Just this past week, a Chinese air force jet carried out a dangerous manoeuvre, flying within 50 feet of an American surveillance plane.

In aeronautical terms, this was way too close for comfort. It was unnecessary and provocat ive.

Beijing may not like the fact that some Southeast Asian countries are moving closer to the US in terms of military cooperation. But China should know that it was their action that provoked this shift.

The US is not one of the claimants to the disputed territories. But its naval presence has helped guarantee freedom of navigation and stability in East Asia. This has enabled the region to prosper.

It's hard to say how far the US should go in applying pressure against China. A few days ago, a destroyer sailed near one of China's artificial islands.

It was billed as part of the freedom-of-navigation operation that challenges Beijing's vast claim in the South China Sea.

Many Chinese analysts see the US move to lift an arms embargo on Vietnam as directed at China.

Beijing may not like the timing of this move towards fuller normalisation between these two countries but the Chinese should know that this was inevitable.

Moreover, with Vietnam's economic success comes military modernisation.

Some may see American naval presence and activities as provocative. But this has long been part of the post-World War II international norm.

Instead of trying to rewrite the rules, perhaps Beijing should use its position and rapidly expanding military and naval power to work with Washington to maintain this norm.

China loves to talk about how it was humiliated by colonial powers and uses this bit of history to construct its nation-state narrative.

But the world has evolved and there is no shame in working with the Americans on this given the fact that so many nations around the world depend on these sea lanes for trade and navigation.

The two countries have much more to gain by exploring commonalities and build on them.

However, it remains to be seen if Beijing will develop the courage to get out of this fear-based mindset.

* The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.