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US must back up its words on South China Sea

Last Saturday, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Michael Fuchs called on the parties in South China Sea territorial disputes to agree to a 'voluntary freeze' on provocative behavior. Fuchs appealed for a concrete development of principles laid out in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DoC) signed between China and Asean.

Couched in diplomatic pleasantries, the DoC affirms universal principles of non-interference, peaceful resolution to conflicts and "promotion of economic prosperity." The beautiful-sounding points require parties to operate on the basis of existing international laws governing operations on the seas and diplomacy, and also affirm the right to free navigation as well as overflight.

It is evident to all, though, that those principles have been violated repeatedly since then. In the area that China claims 90 per cent of, we have seen in the past three years the country blockading Second Thomas Shoal, setting up a municipal government on the island of Sansha, and recently constructing oil rigs in areas disputed by Vietnam. The Philippines released evidence of what it calls China reclaiming the Johnson Reef.

While Fuchs says that no single party is wholly responsible for tensions, he explicitly points out that the US considers China to be provocative. And he is right. In the context of geopolitical strategic balance, China is clearly acting to take advantage of its resources, from population to economic wealth to military might.

Words that look pretty on paper have no meaning unless they can be translated into genuine improvement for the region at stake. For now, the lofty Holy Grail of "harmony" is clearly out of reach. Defining the more immediate goal in terms of establishing an environment where the propensity for military exchanges is lower may be more realistic for defusing conflicts.

The US needs to back up its most recent call to the region with concrete steps that would help enforce the peace. It is counterproductive to throw out admonitions or appeals without making one’s presence felt, and Washington does have to meet a degree of participation in the Asia-Pacific if it wants to promote the regional peace that is conducive to the overall interest.

Over the past few years the US has increased its military presence in the region. US President Obama established a small garrison in Darwin, Australia and in April the US signed a 10-year agreement with the Philippines over the expanded usage of bases in the country.

As China beefs up the scale and pace of its forward deployments, as a result coming into conflict or near-conflict with its neighbors, Washington should step up its presence in the region.

In demonstrating its stake in the region, a restrained but conscious deployment of vessels passing nearby hotspots could be a powerful gesture.

The Diplomat periodical, in an article titled ’The Limits of Pacific Maritime Law,’ noted the fact that many of the agreements that have been established regarding conventions of the sea are redundant. For example, the signs that were agreed upon in April between China and two dozen nations, in a non-binding agreement called the Code For Unplanned Encounters at Sea, have been established parts of the maritime lexicon for generations. The principles of mutual respect, non-violence and non-interference are present in China’s own Five Principles for Peaceful Co-existence. The problem lies in the actions of current players not living up to those standards and hence the need for constant reaffirmations.

Taking a more conciliatory and forward-looking perspective, the US can serve as a lubricating partner between China and the various parties involved by sending diplomatic staff at all levels to monitor and actively join in defusing bilateral disputes.

On Saturday, the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry in charging into Kabul to negotiate a way out of the election dispute there resulted in an agreement between parties for a full audit of the presidential vote.

That case illustrates that US attention and efforts do count. In the South China Sea and East China Sea, Washington can also help reduce the propensity toward devastating conflict.


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