Troubled waters: US and China should settle row over disputed seas through diplomacy

Military posturing in the South and East China seas only breeds hostility and distrust; differences must be settled through talks centred on mutual respect

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 March, 2016, 12:19am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 March, 2016, 12:39am

American officials contend that Washington does not take sides in territorial disputes in the East and South China seas. A recent agreement with the Philippines in which the US will be given access to five military bases, some near to contested areas, says otherwise. It appears less about the rebalance that President Barack Obama announced in 2011 and instead squares with Beijing’s suspicion that it is about containment. The deal, if it goes ahead, is bound to increase tensions in relations and the region.

The deal, to be finalised when US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter visits the Philippines next month, would allow American troops to be stationed in the country for the first time in 25 years. Four air bases and an army camp would be open for US use, adding to regular navy port visits and military exercises. Beijing’s angry response is understandable given the American military moves and strengthening of ties with neighbours involved in territorial disputes with China. Apart from sailing warships close to contested islands in the South China Sea and overflying the area with aircraft in the guise of “freedom of navigation”, new defence pacts have been signed with Singapore and Australia.

Washington’s stepped-up efforts have been in response to the construction of runways, defence installations and buildings on artificial islands. But island-building has also been undertaken by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia, which, along with Brunei, challenge Chinese sovereignty. There is no disputing the right for nations to freely navigate waters that are essential for trade. But using them to mobilise warships and jet fighters to flex military muscle is quite another matter.

Obama said the rebalance would strengthen America’s diplomatic, military and economic ties to the Asia-Pacific. But a key message was also the intention that the US would play a leadership role in Asia for decades to come. That could be interpreted as either being a counterbalance to China or an effort to curtail its rise. Stationing troops on Philippine soil, sailing warships through disputed seas and boosting military alliances with China’s neighbours points to the latter.

China and the US, as the world’s second and largest economic powers and key trading partners, need good relations. Provocations will only cause an unstable region and hostility. The more threatening Washington’s actions are perceived as being, the greater Beijing’s likely counter-measures. The dangers of confrontation are obvious; differences have to be settled through talks centred on problem-solving and mutual respect.