Deescalating China-US Tensions in the South China Sea

Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD

31 August 2020

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the whole world, China and the United State are currently involved in a worsening security tension in the South China Sea.  China-US relation has reached its lowest moment since the normalization of their bilateral ties in 1979.

The US has presently hardened its approach in the South China Sea by intensifying its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), conducting more military exercises, and explicitly demanding China to abide by the 2016 tribunal decision in the area.  China, on the other hand, is also strengthening its position by vigorously asserting its sovereignty in the South China Sea through increased maritime patrols and infrastructure developments.   

Because of China-US conflict in the South China Sea, there is a growing fear that a cold war is already emerging between the two powers.  This situation can inevitably risk the world to be divided again that is reminiscent of the bitter cold war between the US and the former Soviet Union right after the Second World War.

In fact, global anxieties are already rising about the possibility of having the Third World War as both powers are flexing their strong military muscles by sending their warships not only in the South China Sea but also in other waters surrounding China.  To defy China’s position, the US continues to deploy its warships around strategic waters that can contain Beijing: South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Straits.   

On 19 August 2020, for example, the US deployed its missile destroyer, the USS Mustin, to conduct FONOPs in the Taiwan Strait in order to deliver a strong message against China’s recent actions in the area.   The USS Mustin is the seventh American ship this year to sail through the Taiwan Strait. 

On 4 July 2020 during the commemoration of American Independence Day, two American aircraft carriers, USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, conducted military drills in the South China Sea as part of its commitment of “standing up for the right of all nations to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”.  China regards all recent US military activities in the South China Sea as provocations. 

China and the US are bound to collide in the South China Sea if they remain intransigent in their positions. 

Thus, both powers need to soften their current approaches in the South China Sea if a deescalation of their tensions is warranted.    China and the US need to exercise self-restraints and settle their differences to calm the overall situation in the South China Sea and to maintain international peace and security.   As President Xi Jingping emphasized as early as 2014, China and the US have more to gain from cooperation and more to lose from confrontation. 

Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, wrote on 7 August 2020 that China and the US fighting against each other would spell great disaster not only against each other but also to the rest of the world.    It is therefore imperative for both powers to deescalate their current conflicts in order to maintain world peace.  As Dr. Henry Kissinger exclaims years ago, the world will be divided if China and the US are in conflict.

Though it takes two to tango, China can choose to dance in a different tune by pursuing peaceful unilateral actions that can avoid US “provocations” and encourage the US to opt for constructive and non-provocative measures like dialogues, consultations, and negotiations.    Towards this end, China can unilaterally open its channels of communications with the US in order to rebuild trust and confidence necessary for the enduring peace in the South China Sea.   

China needs to commit itself for a peaceful engagement with the US to avoid war and prevent violent conflicts between them. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi underscored in an interview, China needs to remain “committed to peaceful development and to pursuing an opening-up strategy of mutual benefit. China will continue to promote global peace and development and uphold the international order.”

Peaceful management of conflicts in the South China Sea rests on the decisive affirmative actions taken not only by claimants and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but also by the joint actions of China and the US.    This is the time for China to show its strong willed  leadership in promoting peace, security and stability in the South China Sea by unilaterally pursuing practical measures that can deescalate tensions and prevent the risk of accidents and misunderstandings with the US.

One Chinese proverb says, “He that knows patience knows peace”.   Though feeling provoked by the US, China can take the moral high ground by being patient and kind under the worsening situation.   Chinese patience is needed to deescalate the current tensions in the South China Sea.  Patience is a long-tested civilizational virtue that China can currently embrace in order to effectively lead the whole world in pursuit of a shared community of future for humankind.

Rommel C. Banlaoi has a PhD in International Relations at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China.  He is the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and a member of the Management Board of the World Association for Chinese Studies (WACS).

This piece also appeared in Eurasia Review.

Photo Credit: Littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts routine patrols in international waters of South China Sea near Spratly Islands as People’s Liberation Army Navy guided-missile frigate Yancheng sails close behind. (U.S. Navy/Conor Minto) as used in Eurasia Review.

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