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Washington's activities in South China Sea continue despite Ukraine crisis

By Ding Duo | | Updated: 2022-03-25 15:11
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The world today is facing profound changes unseen in a century, with instability and uncertainty increasing. The Ukraine crisis has led to Europe's largest geopolitical confrontation since the end of the Cold War. Even so, the US strategy of provoking great power competition in the Indo-Pacific region and taking China as its main rival has not changed, and it is still trying to contain China in the South China Sea through military activities.

Recently, a top military commander of the US took a military plane to the South China Sea. Such practice is not only a true portrayal of the US restoring the Cold War mentality and exaggerating the threat of China, but also precisely prove that the US deep involvement in South China Sea affairs is the main "source of shock" to the regional situation.

Over the years, the US has frequently dispatched advanced warships and military aircraft to the South China Sea to show off its might, dispatched aircraft carrier formations to conduct military exercises in the South China Sea, and frequently approached and intruded into the sea and airspace adjacent to China's islands and reefs in the South China Sea in the name of "freedom of navigation operations," threatening China's sovereignty and security. The international community can see very clearly who is pushing the logic of power and trying to build a "maritime empire".

As a long-term impact of the Ukraine crisis and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the US may further strengthen its perception of the necessity and urgency of increasing military deployment and resource investment in the Indo-Pacific. Given that the US has made it clear that maintaining its maritime dominance in the Western Pacific region is one of the goals of its Indo-Pacific strategy, playing the "deterrence card" and "rule card" against China based on a closed and exclusive multilateral security mechanism may be the main means for the US to intervene in the South China Sea issue.

First, the US has put forward a new concept of deterrence in its Indo-Pacific strategy, the core of which is to combine military technical capabilities, military deterrence concepts, and various capabilities such as diplomacy, international law, and international public opinion in various ways to form a comprehensive deterrence against China in the South China Sea.

Second, the Biden administration is committed to consolidating and restoring US allies and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, while encouraging greater collaboration among its allies and partners, and has repeatedly emphasized the role of so-called "value diplomacy". In this sense, although the impact of the US-led FVEY, QUAD and AUKUS on the security situation in the South China Sea is unpredictable, in the event of an escalating crisis, countries outside the region may intervene in South China Sea affairs through such mechanisms.

Third, considering that the US has long been inconsistent in its words and deeds on the Taiwan question, and that the new version of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy report also contains negative content related to it, the U S may disrupt the stability of the South China Sea and create some linkage between the South China Sea issue and the Taiwan question. From the perspective of the US, such approach may contain China without causing the overall situation to get out of control.

The origin of the South China Sea issue and the negative impact of the so-called South China Sea arbitration award may be long-lasting. As long as the South China Sea issue does not lead to a military conflict, the game of rules will always be a major form of competition and interaction between Beijing and Washington. Such game of rules mainly has two levels: the first is the discourse power to interpret the rules of the international law of the sea, including the UNCLOS and general international law, and the second is the influence on various agreements, institutional systems, and even legal order about the South China Sea issue. The former will have an important impact on China's safeguarding its maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and building a maritime power, while the latter is closely related to China's maintaining the overall stability of the surrounding diplomatic environment, leading regional maritime governance, and even building a community with a shared future for the sea.

The purpose that the US wants to achieve in the game of rules is also very clear. At the legal level, Washington is trying to completely deny China's claims in the South China Sea and provide a legal basis for the US to conduct so-called "freedom of navigation operations" and other military activities in the South China Sea. At the diplomatic level, Washington aims to test the loyalty of allies and partners to its South China Sea policy, mobilize the enthusiasm of these countries, and demonstrate a common will to "confront China" on the South China Sea issue. At the geopolitical level, it tries to provoke relations between China and ASEAN countries through maximizing the negative impact of the South China Sea disputes on regional bilateral and multilateral cooperation. At the level of international public opinion, the US wants to deliberately create the illusion of opposition between "the international community vs China" and "a community vs an individual state", to control the power of issue setting and international discourse.

The South China Sea region has maintained an overall peaceful situation for many years. This is the result of the joint efforts and careful maintenance of China and neighboring countries. The US is currently trying to put together closed and exclusive small circles or groups, and to get the region off course toward fragmentation and bloc-based division under the Indo-Pacific strategic framework, and countries around the South China Sea should be vigilant against this. This is also one of the important revelations brought to the Asia-Pacific by the eastward expansion of Nato and the Russian-Ukrainian crisis.

Ding Duo is deputy director and associate research fellow at the Research Center for Ocean Law and Policy at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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