Think Tank

Motives behind US talk of 'freedom of navigation'

By Chen Hu (
Updated: 2011-07-02 09:47
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The words "freedom of navigation" have frequently appeared in the media of the United States amid the recent territorial disputes in the South China Sea. According to a report by Reuters on June 23, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when meeting with the Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, "We are concerned that recent incidents in the South China Sea could undermine peace and stability in the region," and "U.S. national interests in freedom of navigation and respect for international law are at stake." Some senior U.S. officials and mainstream agencies have repeatedly made similar remarks over recent months as if international navigation in the South China Sea were in peril.

Is this true? The events that transpired afterward may provide an answer. According to a report by Xinhua News Agency on June 26, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo met with Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son, the special envoy of the Vietnamese leader, and both sides agreed to solve the maritime disputes between China and Vietnam through negotiations and friendly consultations. In response, some international media agencies commented that this shows the improvement in the bilateral relationship between China and Vietnam after several weeks of tension.

BBC reported on its website that the Philippines and the United States would begin an 11-day joint naval drill over disputed waters in the South China Sea on June 28. Analysts said that the United States has clarified its position to support its long-term allies within the region. The two nearly coincidental events reflect two different approaches and results in solving the disputes. The former shows that countries surrounding the South China Sea are willing to peacefully solve disputes and will likely tackle disputes through bilateral negotiations, provided that there is no external intervention. The latter shows that after external forces step in, the confrontation among countries related to the South China Sea disputes will escalate, resulting in the further deterioration of the situation.

Despite the long-running dispute, the South China Sea remains one of the world's busiest international shipping lanes, and the freedom of navigation in the sea is not threatened. Neither the countries surrounding the sea nor the majority of developed countries have issued similar warnings. Almost all statements that the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is threatened have been made by the United States tens of thousands of miles away. What are the superpower's motives behind this interesting phenomenon?

In fact, similar phenomena are often seen in the realm of international affairs. It has been a commonplace that certain countries use all sorts of excuses, such as humanitarian crises, terrorist threats or democracy campaigns to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. The end result is that the meddlers gain benefits, while other countries and their surrounding regions are left to suffer wars and unrest.

According to an article published on the website of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 26, Bobby Tuazon, a researcher at the Philippine think-tank Center for People Empowerment in Governance warned that the territorial dispute over the Nansha Islands might be used to "justify huge budgets for the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization, the purchase of military supplies and the keeping of the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States."

The war hawks in the Pentagon may take advantage of the territorial dispute and the U.S. security treaties with the Philippines and other East Asian countries to strengthen and adjust its security forces in the region in order to encircle China with strategic alliances. This may cause greater tension or conflict in the South China Sea.

By Chen Hu, a freelance commentator for People's Daily, and the editor-in-chief of the World Military Affairs magazine.