Worrying tension in South China Sea

Muscle flexing by the American and Chinese navies in the South China Sea has escalated tensions to unprecedented levels. Earlier this week, the US sailed its guided missile-destroyer USS Lassen inside the 12-nautical mile zone that China claims around Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly archipelago. In recent months, China has reclaimed some 2,000 acres of land here, turning mere sandbars into islands equipped with airfields, ports and lighthouses. Aimed at bolstering its territorial claims in these disputed waters, the Chinese move has raised hackles in the region. Amidst these escalating tensions, additional aggravation has come in the form of the US warship, which sailed close to the Chinese reclaimed islands. The US government claims it was on “routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law.” Interestingly, Washington, which is claiming rights for itself in these waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is not a signatory to this treaty. Its stated intention of “exercising the right of freedom of navigation in international waters” is therefore suspect.

Beijing has described the US action as a “very serious provocation, politically and militarily.” Threats and counter-threats have intensified. While talks between the two sides on Thursday have defused tensions somewhat, such confrontations are sure to recur. China can be expected to persist with its unilateral cementing of territorial claims in the South China Sea as it is not willing to discuss the issue with the regional powers. And the US is likely to repeat its muscle-flexing in these waters. After all, the US warship’s sailing into the South China Sea was aimed not so much at asserting freedom of navigation in these waters as it was at impressing Washington’s Asia Pacific allies. It is to convince them that the US is serious about its ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy that the recent US show of force was aimed.

Going to war may not be on the minds of either the US or China. Still, the tension in the South China Sea is worrying. After all, history is replete with examples of accidental armed conflicts and of countries going to war after misreading each other’s actions and intentions. This makes it imperative for the US and China to shrug off their confrontationist postures. The South China Sea disputes are undoubtedly complex; the claims of several countries here overlap. But these can be resolved through dialogue. China should come around to accepting arbitration of the disputes under the UNCLOS treaty.

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