Unwise for Asean states to make an enemy of China
It is safe to assert that there have never been so many warships - Chinese, Vietnamese, Philippine and even American - converging in the South China Sea than at this moment. Tension is running high with weekly protest rallies in Hanoi demanding apologies and compensation from China, and the Vietnamese government issuing a decree that spells out who will be exempted from conscription in the event of war. The Philippines also joined the party with its ageing flagship dispatched to the region.
China, on the other hand, appeared unusually calm, only repeating its territorial claims and calling for a peaceful settlement. Even on the web, there are few angry war cries. There is a Chinese saying that 'the biting dog does not bark', and the sign can only be described as ominous.
To many Chinese, the US seemed to have launched an all-out attack recently, from a surge of China-bashing to advice by investors to sell short Chinese companies listed on the American stock exchange. Viewed from this besieged angle, the rise in tension in the South China Sea is only part of the story. It is commonly suspected that, without the implicit or explicit encouragement and support of the US, both Vietnam and the Philippines would never provoke Beijing in such a foolhardy way, given that they are no match for China's newly acquired naval military might.
It is widely known that China views the years running up to 2020 as the window of opportunity for its last developmental dash, and will try its best to steer away from trouble. But some people choose to interpret this another way, believing that when China surpasses the US as the world's No 1 economy around 2020, it will then flex its muscles to challenge the existing system.
China has now officially acknowledged that it will soon commission its first aircraft carrier. The implication is that its capability of effectively patrolling and defending the South China Sea will be greatly enhanced.
Vietnam, for one, sees this as a now-or-never opportunity to consolidate its annexation of islands from China and tonnes of offshore oil pumped from waters that do not belong to it. In doing so, it is clearly taking advantage of China's urge for co-development and peaceful settlement as enshrined in the China-Asean Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to which Vietnam is a party.
Should a war break out between China and Vietnam, the US will inevitably be blamed. On the other hand, China has expressly declared that it does not want any external - meaning American - intervention in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Adding the two together, the conclusion is that the US should stay out of any conflict in this area or be prepared to be blamed. The US should extricate itself from this predicament by restraining Vietnam and the Philippines from taking a belligerent position, and let China sort out the issue with them.
Yes, China is now struggling to overcome an internal bottleneck in development. But it is basically sound, despite all the doomsday scenarios from the US. An imminent collapse, or the Communist Party losing its ruling status, is simply wishful thinking.
China, for long a world superpower in history, is on its way to regaining that status. Creating such a formidable enemy at this particular historical juncture is highly unwise for neighbouring countries. This also applies to the US, which has no inherent or fundamental conflicts with this rising dragon.
The Chinese people just want to have a dignified and a better life and they don't care whether China is No 2 or No 1. As a country, China does not have an imperial or expansionist tradition. Ancient China co-existed peacefully with its smaller neighbours and the Roman empire, and there is no reason why modern China cannot live in harmony with Vietnam, the Philippines and the US.
Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development