File photo taken on May 13, 2015 shows the workboat of a Chinese archaeological team for the archaeological work of the Shanhu Island No. 1 shipwreck in the Xisha archipelago in the South China Sea.(Xinhua)
BEIJING, May 13 (Xinhua) -- An article on a series of events leading to rising tensions in the South China Sea, co-authored by Fu Ying, chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress of China, and Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute of the South China Sea, was published on Monday in the U.S. magazine The National Interest.
Titled "South China Sea: How We Got to This Stage," the article reviews the chain of events leading to the escalation of tensions in the South China Sea, lays out China's policy objectives and calls on relevant players to cooperate so as to seek viable solutions to the disputes.
The article notes that the United States, as a power from outside the region, has "played a major role by coming into the issue and adjusting its policies toward the region since 2009." The following are related paragraphs in the article:
Shortly after taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration signaled that it would correct the Bush administration's misplaced foreign policy by shifting the U.S. strategic priority to the Asia-Pacific region, which obviously contributed to the confidence of the other claimants in the South China Sea to challenge China.
Meanwhile, the U.S. started to have frictions with China in the South China Sea. The year 2009 alone saw at least five confrontational incidents between U.S. and Chinese ships, with the USNS Impeccable incident being the most conspicuous.
The year of 2010 witnessed a faster shifting in the U.S. policy on the South China Sea issue, which showed an inclination to "take sides". At the ministerial meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum held in Hanoi, Vietnam on July 23, 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on the South China Sea issue, stating that the United States "has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea," and emphasized that claimants should pursue their territorial claims and accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with the Convention. Later Clinton wrote in her memoir: "That was a carefully chosen phrase, answering the earlier Chinese assertion that its expansive territorial claims in the area constituted a 'core interest'." Clinton continued to make a series of remarks on the Obama administration's Asia-Pacific policy and the South China Sea issue on other occasions. Meanwhile, the U.S. has beefed up its presence and enhanced military exercise efforts in the region.
From the perspective of many Chinese people, the U.S. is the invisible hand behind the rising tension in the South China Sea. First, the U.S. is increasingly targeting at China as it steps up its Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy. In 2013, the U.S. announced a plan to reinforce its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region by deploying 60 percent of its fleet and 60 percent of its overseas air force to the region by 2020. Also, the U.S. military has purported to be threatened by "China's anti-access and area denial efforts," and actively promoted some operational concepts like Air-Sea Battle, with China as a main target. These moves have undoubtedly further complicated and intensified the situation in the South China Sea and in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. Many Chinese scholars have started to suspect that the U.S. may be creating illusionary threats and crises in the region which can turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Since 2014, the U.S. has made clearer responses to China in the South China Sea, in postures of direct intervention in the disputes and often in favor of other claimants, especially its own allies.
On February 5, 2014, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said at a congressional hearing that China was in "lack of clarity with regard to its South China Sea claims has created uncertainty, insecurity and instability in the region." He also urged China to clarify its nine-dash line claim. This was the first explicit and official comment made by the U.S. to challenge China on the South China Sea issue. And obviously the U.S. was well aware that, as the Nansha Islands dispute was still unsettled, any attempt to clarify the dash line or maritime claims would only lead to an escalation of tensions. In the same month, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Jonathan Greenert, announced the U.S. support for the Philippines in the event of a China-Philippines conflict. This is the toughest stance expressed by the U.S. in the China-Philippine dispute. At the Post Ministerial Conference of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Naypyidaw in August 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry directly called for a moratorium on land reclamation, building on disputed islands, and actions that might further escalate disputes.
The U.S. started to opt for a cost-imposing strategy against China, meaning it would make it more costly for China to take any actions in the South China Sea by resorting to political, diplomatic, public opinion and military means, so as to force China to pull back without inciting arms confrontation. In 2015, the U.S. released three strategic security documents, titled Forward, Engaged and Ready: A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, National Security Strategy, National Military Strategy and Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, respectively, all of which talked about the South China Sea issue at fairly great length, and asserted that the U.S. would make China pay the price.
From the Chinese perspective, the U.S. dramatically altered policy on the South China Sea has heightened China's fears that its interests would be further undermined, thus inspiring its determination and measures to defend them.
Echoing its policy readjustments, the U.S. has accelerated provocative and coercive actions that are clearly targeted at China. For example, the U.S. surveillance at the Nansha Islands and its surrounding waters have intensified. The number of sorties flown by U.S. planes to conduct close-in reconnaissance at the South China Sea Islands increased from about 260 in 2009 to over 1,200 in 2014. Also, as a way to flex its muscle and assert freedom of navigation, the U.S. keeps sending ships to sail within 12 nautical miles (22.224 kilometers) of the Nansha Islands or even the non-disputed Xisha Islands. On October 27, 2015, the USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles (22.224 kilometers) of Zhubi Reef (Subi Reef). On January 30, 2016, the USS Curtis Wilbur trespassed China' s territorial waters near Zhongjian Island. Quite different from its usual practice, the U.S. media began to buzz over these events. U.S. Pacific Command commander Harry Harris even openly declared to take more sophisticated and wide-ranging activities in the future, and send warships to the South China Sea about twice a quarter.
Other deterrent actions taken by the U.S. include the following: In July 2015, the new commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Admiral Scott Swift joined the surveillance mission on board the ASW P-8A Poseidon to conduct close-in reconnaissance at the South China Sea; on November 5, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter cruised on the USS Roosevelt, and when he began to deliver a speech on board, the carrier was churning through the disputed waters about 150-200 nautical miles (277.8-370.4 kilometers) south of the Nansha Islands and about 70 nautical miles (129.64 kilometers) north of Malaysia; on November 8 and 9, two U.S. B-52 strategic bombers flew near the Chinese islands under construction; and during his visit to the Philippines on April 15, 2016, Carter landed aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and joined a patrol in the South China Sea. U.S. warships and planes also frequently conducted "innocent passage" through China's territorial waters and airspace.
The U.S. has also sought to strengthen its alliance system and forces network surrounding the South China Sea. Since the implementation of the Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy, the U.S. has been stepping up deployment of forces around the South China Sea rim, including the Australian port of Darwin, the Changi Naval Base in Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia. The U.S. is also enhancing cooperation with Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam to conduct intelligence gathering and enhance maritime domain awareness capabilities in the region, and expanding military support to some claimants in the dispute like the Philippines and Vietnam, to help improve their reconnaissance, patrol control and anti-access capacity. In March 2016, the U.S. and the Philippines announced at their sixth annual Bilateral Security Dialogue that the U.S. forces were allowed to use five Philippine military bases. In April 2016, the U.S. and the Philippines conducted again the Shoulder-to-Shoulder exercises in the South China Sea, with more targeted items like retaking over islands, oil rig defense, etc., obviously aiming at disputes in the South China Sea.
The U.S. military deployment in the South China Sea has further flared up tensions in the region, giving the disputes in the South China Sea larger than real role on the international strategic chessboard. The apparent China-U.S. rivalry is seemingly taking over other disputes in the region and starts to occupy the center stage. Looking back at the post-Cold War era, we can see that nearly all the contentions and conflicts involved or even engineered by the U.S., some with complications lingering till today. The Chinese are thus prompted to ask a question: what is the U.S. playing at in the South China Sea this time?
The U.S. as a power from outside the region has played a major role by coming into the issue and adjusting its policies towards the region since 2009. So now, what's next, what will happen in the South China Sea? The U.S. is trying to find out what China's next move will be. On the part of China, suspicion is rising about the U.S. intention. Obviously, there is a risk of escalation of tension and danger of miscalculations at a strategic level.