South China Sea tensions need to be cooled down, not hyped up
- The situation calls for calm heads to prevail among all countries, and especially from decision-makers and supposedly objective analysts
- Hyperbole, such as seen in reaction to the massing of Chinese boats at Whitsun Reef, only plays into the hands of those who want conflict
Indeed, the US and China seem locked in a duel driven by mutual distrust; each claiming to be responding to the other and neither wanting to de-escalate first. This situation calls for calm and cool heads from all countries, and especially from supposedly objective analysts.
But, instead, what we read is hyperbole and hype. This egging on plays into the hands of some militarists who seem to want confrontation and conflict.
This is no longer about who is at fault, or more at fault. There are no angels in the South China Sea. All claimants have taken actions that go against the self-restraint agreed in the 2002 Asean-China non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea.
China may be seen as the worst offender but the widespread lack of trust is a result of violations of principle and not the degree thereof.
China was accused of violating the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, with one leading analyst saying the Chinese vessels were not fishing but “trolling for territory”. Another urged the international community to draw a line in the sand now. Still others warned that the massing of Chinese boats was a threat to occupy new features.
What Duterte actually said was: “We want to remain friends. We want to share whatever it is [...] But when we start to mine, when we start to get whatever it is in the bowels of the [South] China Sea, by that time [...] I will send my grey ships there to stake a claim.”
There were a lot of “ifs” in his rambling response to criticism for being soft on China and they pertain to possible future scenarios – not the present. What he said was that if China started drilling for oil in a disputed area, then so will he. This is a far cry from preparing for a fight.
One analyst said the Chinese boats at Whitsun Reef were “a test of the Biden administration” and their departure meant: “The Chinese have blinked.”
Yet the boats may have been legally anchored if considered to be within the territorial sea around a China-claimed rock. To the dismay of some pundits, a country can indeed own a rock in another’s exclusive economic zone. Or the boats may have been legally taking shelter from bad weather, as China claimed.
China’s maritime militia is real and can easily be perceived as intimidating. Moreover, China has certainly been aggressively promoting and defending its claims in the South China Sea. But what should have been a storm in a teacup was hyped out of all proportion.
Indeed, some analysts and politicians appeared to be trying to goad the US into military action in the South China Sea. Objectivity, fairness and balance – the supposed ethics of independent analysts – are increasingly hard to find in analyses of China’s actions in the South China Sea.
It is important not to jump to conclusions. Decision-makers and those who brief them should not believe everything they read – even from supposedly objective analysts. Hype is hazardous and unhelpful.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China