US, China 'need to cool off' in S. China Sea dispute

The United States and China, which enjoy cooperation in many areas, should continue to engage with each other to prevent their ties from being derailed by strategic competition, experts told a global forum.

They called for calm in the South China Sea dispute and warned of the risk of accidental conflict between the two powers as tensions rose after an international tribunal last week ruled against Beijing's claims in the disputed waters.

"Yes, there is strategic competition between the United States and China, but that's one half of a larger relationship that involves also cooperation," said Professor David Shambaugh, a China expert from George Washington University.

He noted that competition - not only in the military but also in the world order and ideology - has become a "new normal" between the US and China. But they also have "deep interdependence" in trade and investment, he added.

"How do you manage competition while at the same time expanding the boundaries of cooperation between the two sides? That's the dilemma for both countries," he said in a panel discussion at the FutureChina Global Forum held at Shangri-La Hotel.

The discussion became a little intense as the panellists argued over US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific in view of heightened tensions in the South China Sea.

BALL IN CHINA'S COURT

If China continues to reject the ruling... and puts itself above international law, that is not going to be conducive to the stabilisation of the issue, much less resolution of the issue. I think the ball is entirely 100 per cent in China's court.

PROFESSOR DAVID SHAMBAUGH, a China expert from George Washington University, on the ruling on the South China Sea.

Mr Kenneth Choi, a political news editor at South Korea's TV Chosun, said the US as a hegemonic power has a "self-correcting mechanism" that China does not have. South Korea does not want history repeated to become a tributary state of China again, he said.

"China must acknowledge that the world has changed. Chinese do need cooperation from Koreans, Filipinos and Vietnamese for free trade and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. We want the Chinese as an equal partner," he said, calling for Beijing to respect the rule of law.

But "no one is destined to be the hegemon", said Mr Victor Gao, director of China National Association of International Studies. He called on Americans to wake up and accept the fact that China has already surpassed the US in "many categories", including industrial production.

Mr Gao said he hoped both China and the US can calm down and re-engage with each other, adding that US military threat will not force China into kowtowing.

Rather than armed force, whoever wins the Sino-US contest will be the one able to rally international support, said Prof Huang Jing from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The South China Sea arbitration is a case in point, he added.

"If China continues to reject the ruling... and puts itself above international law, that is not going to be conducive to the stabilisation of the issue, much less resolution of the issue," Prof Shambaugh told The Straits Times. "I think the ball is entirely 100 per cent in China's court."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'US, China 'need to cool off' in S. China Sea dispute'. Print Edition | Subscribe