South China SeaChina should understand the regional worries about its rise that lie behind America’s strategy of engagement with Asia, and seek to allay those fears – without equivocation, Steve Tsang says.

The United States’ quick-fire diplomatic double – the announcement of its intention to base 2,500 marines in northern Australia, followed by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s high-profile visit last week to Myanmar – has unnerved the Chinese leadership, and rightly so.

Yet US actions are a far cry from acts of coldwar aggression designed to check China’s rise, as the overtly nationalistic voices in Beijing were typically swift to claim.

Combined, they represent an explicit display of the growing unease felt across Asia and Australasia at China’s increasing assertiveness towards the territorial disputes that continue to unsettle the region. And they are indicative of the mounting pressure on the US to reassure its allies that it is prepared to fulfil its treaty obligations and is committed to pre-empt an attempt by any power to attain the status of regional hegemon.

The Obama administration, up until now, has been particularly willing to accommodate the sensitivities of China’s leaders. Its switch to a more robust approach is testament to the darkening mood that is sweeping across the region as the tone with which Beijing, through its unofficial spokesmen, addresses the territorial disputes in the South China Sea becomes progressively domineering.

China has not made any formal claim that all the waters north of the infamous nine-dotted line in the South China Sea are part of its sovereign territory or even of core national interest. But there exists aggression by proxy. Academics and senior Chinese military officers free from sensitive positions of command or policymaking are permitted to be strident, while the government remains able to deny it has ever made a territorial claim.

However delicately packaged, this risky double game alarms China’s southern neighbours, who lack the power to stand up to China even if they could act in concert.

Even Australia, which has forged one of the closest mutually beneficial economic relationships with China, shares the region’s anxiety. Although loath to admit it publicly, Australia views the planned deployment of US marines to Darwin as reassurance that Uncle Sam is listening and prepared to act.

Myanmar’s leaders have been less shy in registering their concern. Clinton hasn’t exactly emptied a bag of concessionary goodies on the table but the fact that she received such a positive reception reflects not so much the astuteness of US foreign policy, but Myanmar’s fear over China’s monopolistic influence. Now that Myanmar sees, as other Southeast Asian states have seen, a more confident China seeking dominance, it is intent on decoupling itself from Beijing lest it morph into a modern version of a vassal state.

If the Chinese government is seriously concerned about this shift in US policy and wants to undermine America’s regional standing, it can do so – but not with hyperbolic protestations of cold-war containment.

The most effective way for China to remove the raison d’être for the US strategy is to alleviate the anxiety its neighbours harbour towards its own rise. This centres on the need for China to tame its strident nationalists and speak with one reasoned diplomatic voice in order to regain fading regional trust.

The Chinese government reaction to Clinton’s Myanmar visit was again a tale of conflicting statements. The Chinese foreign ministry at first said it welcomed signs of co-operation between the US and Myanmar, yet, only days before, the Chinese military had held a high-level reception for members of Myanmar’s armed forces. The foreign ministry then called on the US to lift the sanctions it has long imposed on Myanmar. The former action was clearly to encourage Myanmar’s military to keep President Thein Sein on a tight rein; the latter to remind Myanmar that the US still insists on sanctions. This inconsistency is more likely to remind Myanmar of the need to reach out to the US than to de-incentivise it.

If members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations believe in the benign intentions of China, support for the rhetorical “return” of the US to Southeast Asia would soon dissipate and it may also make citizens of Darwin question their government’s decision to allow US marines to train on their home turf.

Should this happen, the US would not find Singapore and, crucially, Vietnam so keen to welcome its naval forces to their ports. Vietnam’s decision earlier this year to host the return of a US naval visit at Cam Ranh Bay is perhaps the clearest example yet of Vietnamese discomfort at Chinese intentions.

If China remains committed to a peaceful rise, recent developments need not mark the start of a second cold war.

China’s rise cannot be derailed by its neighbours. But any efforts by China to reassure its neighbours that its intentions are genuinely benign, for example by leaving issues of sovereignty aside and taking the initiative to jointly develop energy resources in the South China Sea for the benefit of the whole region, would be a hugely positive start.

Steve Tsang is director of the China Policy Institute and professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham


Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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