Create mechanism for safety on South China Sea

THE recent incident when a United States Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft flew directly over a Chinese-administered artificial island constructed atop the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is an act that is not constructive to the management of the South China Sea dispute, and not helpful for a healthy China-US relation in the maritime domain.

Activities of this kind have the potential to trigger accidents at sea, like the case in April 2001, when a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a People's Liberation Army Naval F-8 fighter collided.

This is bad for relations between the two countries and for peace in the region. There is also the question of the legitimacy of the United States' activities under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

China and the US, as well as all international and regional stakeholders, should work together to secure the freedom of navigation governed by Unclos, and secure the safe operation of navigation at sea based on international regulations.

It is time to initiate a regional mechanism in line with the safety and security of navigation, to reduce the risk of incidents at sea.

Some worry that China's groundbreaking ceremony for the building of two lighthouses in the South China Sea will escalate tensions in the region.

But the possible escalation of the disputes in the South China Sea is not driven by either China's ceremony for the building of two lighthouses, or its recent land reclamation.

The international community acknowledges that China is not the first state which initiated resource-exploration activities in disputed areas, introduced military vessels to enforce jurisdictional claims, or conducted land-reclamation work in the adjoining waters.

Instead, the escalating tension is driven by the misperception of China by the neighbouring countries. The misperception is that China's economic and military growth as a "big and strong" neighbour makes it a threat. Some international media reports on claimant states in this region are one-sided.

Despite potential challenges, there is great hope for China and Asean to resolve their differences in the South China Sea in their preferred ways.

China's international image has been jeopardised, and it is viewed as not having done well enough in comparison with other claimant states (states which could easily win the moral high ground as smaller and weaker nations) in the longstanding territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Tremendous legal and diplomatic efforts are needed to achieve China's strategic goal. China could unlock the impasse in the South China Sea by using soft power and diplomacy.

In 2011, China announced a China-Asean Maritime Cooperation Fund, with a first paid-up capital of three billion yuan (S$654 million), primarily to support marine scientific research, connectivity and navigational safety in the South China Sea.

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Asean that China would be willing to work together with Asean to build a "Maritime Silk Road in the 21st century".

Last year, China called for cooperation proposals from Asean states for the second round of competition for projects for the cooperation fund.

China and Asean have also declared 2015 the "Asean-China Year of Maritime Cooperation".

There are two Chinese strategic considerations behind these concepts: to shape a new pattern of diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries, and to create favourable conditions for better maritime cooperation, which in turn will create a benign environment so that China can build itself into a substantive maritime power.

But for China and the US, it is a different story. In order to resolve this paradox, China and the US have no choice but to engage each other and maintain regular consultations on how they can coexist with their respective core interests. After all, the Asia-Pacific is big enough for both countries to share and exert their respective influence without constantly being at each other's throats.

While China's rise stands a good chance of triggering a regional power shift, the US needs to acknowledge China's rise and its core interests.

Similarly, China must respect the legitimate interests of the US in the South China Sea, especially freedom of navigation in line with Unclos, which in any case is also in China's common interest.

What would work in the favour of both countries is to explore the fields of developing maritime cooperation between China and the US. Joint efforts in anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden have provided one successful example. Providing search and rescue at sea and humanitarian assistance would be the areas for both countries to take a lead in this region with their naval capacity.

It will be in China and the US' interests to initiate a regional mechanism in line with the safety and security of navigation, for example, an Incidents at Sea Agreement or a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, in this region.

The writer heads the Institute for China-America Studies, an independent, non-profit academic institution launched by the Hainan Nanhai Research Foundation. She also holds a joint position of research professor with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies and China Institute, University of Alberta.