The fact that maritime security in the South China Sea was discussed as one of the issues in the talks between Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Shenzhen early last week, demonstrates China and the United States are interested in maintaining peace and stability in Asia-Pacific, but it also reflects the geopolitics in the region.
China and the US may wish to ask hard questions of one another, but some of them simply reflect their self-interests, such as China’s concern that it will be unable to control its islands and the United States’ concern that it might be unable to maintain its role as the leading power. But the two countries are keen to avoid any conflict in the South China Sea.
China has said it welcomes the US presence in the region and the US has stated that it will not take sides on sovereignty issues. The US wants to have freedom of navigation and China has never taken, and will not take, any action to disrupt the passage of ships.
It is understandable that any country, including the US, has a national interest in the South China Sea, in the sense that the vast expanse of ocean, except for territorial waters and EEZ (exclusive economic zone) areas, are maritime commons or high seas, which permit “free and unimpeded legal commerce”. In terms of international laws, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Chinese and any other countries’ vessels are also legally allowed to freely sail in the high seas outside US territorial waters. In this respect China can also declare that it has a national interest in the Caribbean areas in the US’s backyard.
There should be no over-reaction to the comments made by Clinton before the inaugural China-US talks that the US would abide by the Mutual Defense Agreement to defend the Philippines against aggressors. It seems her remarks were merely diplomatic-speak. Otherwise, she would not have mentioned that not only did the US not intend to fan the flames in the South China Sea, but also bluntly refuse to “tell the Chinese that they have an obligation not to fan the flames”.
Despite some conflicting perceptions, both countries can still pursue various types of cooperation in the South China Sea. The first is to widen cooperation for humanitarian and disaster relief, both bilaterally and multilaterally.
The second is that they can consider conducting bilateral maritime and naval exercises to combat piracy, thus securing sea lanes in the South China Sea.
The third is that they can collaborate in persuading international oil companies to explore oil and gas deposits through joint venture developments.
The author is senior fellow at the Institute for Asia-Pacific Studies and director of the APEC Research Center, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.