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China Times: Tensions in South China sea won't escalate

2011/06/18 17:21:10

The recent dispute between China and Vietnam concerning sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea has intensified sharply, making some believe that a military conflict might be on the horizon. This has prompted worries of an eventual confrontation between China and the United States.

But a practical analysis of the situation deems such concerns unnecessary, because none of the smaller countries will risk duking it out with China on their own.

Six countries claim partial or full sovereignty over the South China Sea, with tensions between China and Vietnam growing the most in recent years.

Vietnam conducted live-fire exercises on June 13 in the sea, which apparently is a saber rattling move aimed at China.

The two countries have waged two wars in modern times, and both know of the high price that conflicts can have on their societies. China has ostensibly said it is willing to hold friendly negotiations with other countries to peacefully settle the sovereignty row.

But smaller nations worry they are negotiating at a disadvantage with China, and are trying to enlist the U.S., Japan and Australia to participate in multilateral negotiations.

Vietnam is hoping for U.S. support, because the free passage of ships in the South China Sea serves American interests. More than one third of the world's commercial vessels have to sail through the South China Sea, giving America a stake in keeping these lanes free from China's grip.

China is aware of U.S. concerns and has come up with a flexible strategy to deal with the issue. It suggests countries that claim sovereignty over the South China Sea hold talks on overlapping territorial waters, while the U.S. and Japan can take part in talks regarding freedom of passage in international waters.

China's change in attitude has driven America to a "take no sides" approach toward the recent round of hostilities, when Vietnam and the Philippines lodged protests against Beijing's incursions into their claims.

Commenting on Vietnam's recent military exercises, Washington said on June 10 that it does not support any move that would escalate tensions in the region.

Washington's neutral stance will spark fears from Southeast Asian countries that they might be dumped by the U.S., but it also helps reduce the space for them to leverage, and thereby reduces the likelihood that they would continue to escalate tension.

Although military buildup and nationalism in ASEAN nations have grown because of the South China Sea dispute, America's absence ensures order in the perpetually unsettled waters.

(Editorial abstract -- June 18, 2011)

(By Flor Wang)