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Commentary: Avoid a zero-sum game in South China Sea

Updated: 2013-12-17 17:34
( Xinhua)

BEIJING -- China has been making efforts in the past months to sort out territorial issues left from history with its Southeast Asian neighbors, including Vietnam.

So it sounded unnecessarily harsh when visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry criticized China for its maritime policies in the South China Sea in Hanoi on Monday.

In Manila, the next stop of his Asia tour, Kerry is expected to fast-track a deal on increasing US military presence in the Philippines, an act viewed by many as a show of support for the Southeast Asian country in its territorial dispute with China.

Again, many in China worry that the United States might send the wrong signals that would encourage some regional countries to take reckless policies in their maritime rows with China.

In the past couple of years, the South China Sea has become a new frontier in Washington's strategic pivot to Asia.

Picturing China as a common threat, American hawks have talked some Southeast Asian countries into believing a zero-sum game scenario over relations with China.

However, as is frequently observed in history, engagement with China has turned out to be a win-win game. China's growth for the past three decades has offered vast benefits to its neighbors. Trade bloomed, and investment soared, as the consequences of China's policy of reform and opening up first reached those closest to the door.

The Chinese economy is so intertwined with the rest of the world that a peaceful path of development is both necessary and inevitable. As China grows richer, everyone benefits. A prosperous East Asia is in the interest of all countries that have a stake in the region, including the United States.

Economic vitality makes confrontation a less appealing, and hardly affordable, means to solve problems. In October, China proposed joint development with Vietnam and Brunei as a strategic and practical prelude to the final settlement of territorial disputes. The initiative, which promises solid gains from the rich oil and gas beneath the water, could foster mutual understanding and trust crucial for an eventual solution.

As part of a larger plan to cement relations with East Asian neighbors, China has also proposed to provide more public goods, including setting up an infrastructure investment bank and boosting maritime security cooperation, in order to promote regional peace and development.

Such creative and tangible cooperation projects are backed up by significant real investment commitments. It should relieve the nerves of Washington as China's constructive and cooperative engagement in East Asia is very much in line with US strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific.

To ensure a peaceful, cooperative regional environment, the United States needs to embrace a positive-sum game mind-set.

Meanwhile, it would be imprudent for Washington to continuously boost military presence in the region, which could tip the balance of power and prompt some regional players to opt for confrontation instead of engaging in productive talks.

After all, the United States, as the sole superpower in the world, should find ways to dissipate distrust and foster cooperation over the South China Sea, where everyone may come out as a winner.