24.06.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The South China Sea Region and Sino-American Relations

45645645645As it was mentioned in some New Eastern Outlook articles before, the issue of deteriorating situation in the South China Sea had become a central issue in the relations between the two key global powers – the US and China. Three recent forums held in Japanese Ise-Shima, Singapore and Beijing at the end of May, beginning of June once again confirmed this trend.

Despite strenuous efforts of Chinese diplomacy, the topic of the “assurance of freedom of navigation” (a euphemism Americans use in their propagandistic attacks on the China’s South China Sea policy) was dominating a regular Group of Seven summit held on May 26-27, 2016 in Japan.

Two other significant annual forums (“dialogs”) hosted by Singapore and Beijing on June 3-5 and 6-7 respectively, were also “overshadowed” by the “situation in the South China Sea.”

Shangri-La hotel is a regular venue for the Singapore forum. This is where participants discuss in multilateral format challenges and problems related to the issue of security in the Pacific Rim. Either defense ministers or top officials of defense departments usually head delegations of the participant countries.

It has been a tradition since 2009 to conduct the second “dialog” (the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogs) alternatively in either the capital of the US or China. Foreign, finance and trade ministers of the parties usually head the delegations and the head of the country hosting the forum greets the participants.

Just like the last year, a controversy between US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, was in the center of the Shangri-La Dialog 2016.

US Pentagon chief directly indicated the areas where the issue of the “assurance of freedom of navigation” was of high relevance. He also defined the party posing a threat to the “freedom of navigation. He said that “Beijing particularly destabilizes the situation” in the South China Sea by creating artificial islands and demanding that foreign vessels stay clear from the 12-mile territorial sea.

Talking about the territorial sea issue, Mr. Carter once again highlighted that the US did not recognize the 12-mile territorial sea claims, and that American reconnaissance aircrafts and combat ships would continue flying and sailing across these areas.

He called for China to cease its “unprecedented” activities in the South China Sea and join forces with the US and other countries in their effort to build a “principled security network,” having warned that otherwise China might find itself in “isolation.”

Although it was apparent that Adm. Sun Jianguo was rebuffing the recent attacks of representatives of the US Defense Department, his speech was quite constructive. In particular, head of the Chinese delegation defined four general initiatives on the “support of security management in the Pacific Rim.”

However, the same speech contained a rather distinctive message confirming China’s aspiration to continue strengthening its position in the South China Sea, including for the “assurance of freedom of navigation” the US is allegedly so worried about.

The General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping greeted the participants of the (eighth) regular China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogs at the opening ceremony.

During his optimistic speech, he underscored that it was quite normal for the two leading world powers to exercise different approaches when resolving various problems. Chinese leader also highlighted that these differences could be overcome if both parties base their actions on the “principle of mutual respect and equality.

Apparently, it would take more than just Chinese leader’s optimistic speech to overcome the bulk of mutual discontent that has been snowballing in the recent years. This is especially true for the bilateral US-China trade, which has approached a breathtaking annual amount of almost $600 bn in 2015. While the amount is impressive, the US trade deficit with China is invariably growing. Last year it amounted to $366 bn.

It looks like Washington has finally decided (right before the start of the bilateral dialog) to move beyond many-year rhetoric dedicated to the “manipulated” exchange rate of yuan and “predatory prices” charged on the imported Chinese goods.

US tariffs on Chinese cold-rolled flat steel imports neared 500%. At the same time, Washington filed a claim with WTO accusing China of unreasonably high tariffs on US chicken exports.

While these measures are being introduced, the US mass media are amplifying the “war rhetorictargeting China. The Chinese semiofficial tabloid The Global Times that introduced this term, believes that there exists a “twisting of trade truth.”

In general, it seems that the only benefit of this year’s dialog held in Beijing as well as of the dialog hosted last year by the US is that this political venue established (as both parties put it) for a “sincere exchange” of opinions on the problems “dividing” the two nations is still functioning.

The Global Times’ illustrator apparently reflected a sad irony of the collocation “frank exchange” by depicting a typical uncle Sam “exchanging” kung fu palm strikes with a Chinese panda. The current situation in the South China Sea is the best example of such a “frank exchange.”

In the conclusion, it should be emphasized once again that the situation in the South China Sea has been developing according to the “worst-case” scenario, negatively affecting all aspects of the Sino-US relations.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.



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