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Why China-US tensions in South China Sea are manageable

The South China Sea territorial dispute has become a semi-crisis in China-US relations, threatening the larger peace and stability that regional states rely on for their prosperity.

The situation appears increasingly serious for two reasons. First, both Beijing and Washington have framed the issue as defence of a vital national interest.

For China, the interest is protection of what the Chinese claim is their sovereign territory.

For the United States, the interests are the unfettered use of international waters and airspace by the US military - essential for a superpower - and pushback against an attempt by another strong state to gain its objectives by bullying smaller neighbours, including countries that have friendly relations with America.

Countries are willing to go to war over vital national interests.

The second reason why the South China Sea dispute is so alarming is the potential for escalation. The two sides appear locked into a negative dynamic in which each side feels compelled to respond to the other's action.

If the Chinese think they are fighting for national territory, for Americans the credibility of US regional leadership is on the line.

If the Chinese think they are fighting for national territory, for Americans the credibility of US regional leadership is on the line. It is difficult to see a path for de-escalation, and easy to see the risk of continual unfriendly encounters between Chinese and US military units on and above the contested waters.

While there is nothing good about the emergence of a new China-US flashpoint in South-east Asia, there are nevertheless good reasons to believe this crisis is manageable. The first reason is that we can expect routinisation.

We have seen this scenario before. During the Cold War, US and Soviet units frequently came into close contact. Both sides learnt to abide by certain unwritten rules to prevent incidents that neither side wanted. By now all personnel in the Chinese Navy and maritime policing units who deploy to the South China Sea know that occasionally an American ship or aircraft might show up, approach, and then leave. This does not eliminate the possibility that a Chinese pilot or ship captain might use this opportunity to demonstrate his bravery or patriotism; that is a problem of command and control from the higher to the lower ranks. The Chinese know, however, that the Americans aim merely to make a point and move on, with zero impact on the presence of Chinese facilities in the area. The freedom- of-navigation operations are in fact a weak, merely symbolic response by the United States, one that should be easy for the Chinese to tolerate despite the obligatory tough Chinese rhetoric.

The second reason the crisis should be manageable is that the South China Sea crisis is not a sign that China has embarked on a campaign to immediately force US strategic influence out of the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping did not manufacture the South China Sea dispute; he inherited it. China unquestionably wants to win in the long term, but the intensification of Chinese activity seems to reflect reactiveness and opportunism as much as aggressiveness.

Shoring up China's position in the South China Sea gained a new urgency with the case filed by the Philippines with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which is likely to announce a ruling that delegitimises much of the basis of China's claims. Chinese reclamation activity appears strategically clever, at least in the short term. Beijing no doubt approved the land reclamation plan, confident that neither the United States nor any of the rival claimants would try to physically stop it, as such an attempt would be an outright act of war.

Furthermore, the Chinese knew they could raise the argument that other claimants as well have engaged in land reclamation in disputed areas, albeit on a much smaller scale. The ultimate result will be small Chinese military bases that will improve China's ability to enforce its claims, adding to psychological pressure on the other claimants to submit to Beijing's demand for separate bilateral negotiations to settle the dispute on terms favourable to China.

If China's activity in the South China Sea is limited to the aim of consolidating the Chinese position in the territorial dispute, the increased tension with the US is an unintended consequence rather than the opening battle in a larger campaign. In that case, China's goals will be to maintain face but minimise the tensions.

From China's standpoint, the policy looks like a quick, easy score in anticipation of increased international resistance. Chinese policy does, however, indicate that Mr Xi is much less concerned than his predecessors about the risk of China appearing domineering towards other regional states.

Whether Mr Xi's decision will prove advantageous to China's long-term security is questionable. Taking a broad view, China has arguably lost strategic ground by accelerating security cooperation among worried states in the region, a high price for gaining a few tiny and vulnerable military outposts.

• The writer is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Centre in Honolulu. He specialises in international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. His latest book is Return Of The Dragon: Rising China And Regional Security.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2016, with the headline 'Why China-US tensions in South China Sea are manageable'. Print Edition | Subscribe