Soldiers ride in boats from a destroyer to conduct a visit, board, search and seizure training exercise aboard a simulated enemy vessel. Recently, a guided-missile destroyer flotilla under the South China Sea Fleet of the PLA Navy organized its warships to conduct a realistic confrontation training exercise, including such subjects as formation offense and defense, visit, board, search and seizure, anti-shore firing at night and anti-aircraft firing in complex electromagnetic environment.(Source: 81.cn)
The South Sea and the South China Sea are different names for the same waters but reflect how China's claim is different from that of southeastern Asian countries as well as the United States.
If the sovereignty disputes over the South China Sea islands between China and its southeastern Asian neighbors could be referred to as the first stage of contention, then reclamation over reefs in the waters conducted by China, Vietnam and the Philippines will bring the struggle into the second stage. In the struggles over the islands, the United States' increasing involvement represents China's main opposition on this issue.
But Washington's stance is self-contradictory. On one hand, the United States needs to back up southeastern Asian countries to maintain its presence in Asia and to strategically rebalance the Asia-Pacific region. On the other hand, the United States has stressed it would assume an impartial stance, acknowledge that all parties in the islands struggle are conducting reclamation and they are responsible for solving the problem. U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated this position during Chinese President Xi Jinping's latest U.S. visit.
The United States has varied its stance due to such contradictions, and thinks it has to contain China's progress in the South China Sea to maintain its leadership in the Asia-Pacific Region.
Recently, China put two lighthouses, respectively on Huayang Reef and Chigua Reef, both among the Nansha Islands, into operation. The Philippines and some other neighboring countries have aired their dissatisfactions. However, just as China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has pointed out, the lighthouses are civilian facilities which safeguard navigation, and impose no harm to the navigation freedoms bolstered by the United States.
Observers believe that the United States is embarrassed because once its vessels use the facilities, it will mean that Washington has acknowledged China's sovereignty concerning these reefs. Hence, the United States has said its ships would cruise within the 12 nautical mile-range of the reefs, meaning that Washington does not support China's sovereignty claim.
All signs show that the struggles between China and the United States are being intensified as the two sides have at least started a fierce war of words. However, this contention hardly has an end, nor a winner.
Guided-missile destroyers sail in a sea area of the South China Sea during a confrontation drill. Recently, a guided-missile destroyer flotilla under the South China Sea Fleet of the PLA Navy organized its warships to conduct a realistic confrontation training exercise, including such subjects as formation offense and defense, visit, board, search and seizure, anti-shore firing at night and anti-aircraft firing in complex electromagnetic environment. (Source: 81.cn)
Years ago, before contentions in the South China Sea became this fierce, China and the United States had ship standoffs in the waters and aerial encounters that resulted in the crash of a Chinese fighter jet and the forced landing of a U.S. reconnaissance jet in China. These crises were all later properly solved.
In the current South China Sea struggles, the United States wants to play it up and seems ready to do anything for Southeast Asian countries. At the same time, it still wishes to act like an impartial arbitrator.
In such a self-contradiction, Washington thinks it is necessary to send naval ships to patrol within the 12-nautical miles, ignoring the cost that such high-profile acts might incur upon itself.
In simple words, Chinese lighthouses and U.S. ship patrols are an episode of the current China-U.S. contentions in the South China Sea.
But in the meantime, the two countries have never stopped their bilateral military exchange. On Oct. 13, PLA navy training ship the "Zheng He" cruised into Pearl Harbor and six days later, a delegation of U.S. naval captains boarded Chinese aircraft carrier the "Liaoning."
The PLA navy commander Wu Shengli has said that the naval ties between China and the United States are entering the best period in history, and that exchange between frontline naval troops will gradually become institutionalized. Similarly, the U.S. Pacific Command's former deputy commander Douglas M. Fraser said the two militaries' exchange should be continued.
The hidden China-U.S. struggles could be interpreted as Washington's bluffing in that it has to assume this tough stance to assure southeastern Asian countries, an aim the United States has achieved.
The sovereignty disputes between China and Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea will not disappear but even intensify, as understandably, not a single party in the region dares to back down on sovereignty issues.
For countries outside the region, Japan will get itself involved from time to time while the United States wants to play both the leader and the referee, accusing China all the time, although the country's interferences were only in the name of navigational freedom.
Neither land reclamation nor new lighthouses will impose a threat to navigation in the South China Sea, but they are the main reason for the constant however manageable China-U.S. struggles.
The author is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute.
The article was translated by Chen Boyuan. Its original and unabridged version was published in Chinese.
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