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War or Peace in the South China Sea?

Last week, Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou made a visit to Itu Aba, a disputed island in the South China Sea. Itu Aba, also known in Chinese as “Taiping Island,” is under Taiwan’s control. Taiwan has recently finished upgrading a port and built a lighthouse. The island has an airstrip and a hospital.

MaYingjeouTaipingWhile Washington considers the visit “extremely unhelpful” to regional stability, many in China applaud it. The rational is that Taiwan shares China’s claims in the South China Sea. Since Taiwan is part of China, Ma’s assertion proves that the South China Sea is part of China’s territory.

On WeChat, China’s most popular social media site, people cited Ma’s speech on Itu Aba that Spratly Islands were originally discovered by their fore-bearers during the Han Dynasty (200 BC). At least during the Qing Emperor Kangxi’s time (around 1700), China had officially incorporated most islands and reefs into China’s coastal defense system.

After WWII, the U.S. sent Chiang Kai-shek-led Chinese troops to take over Itu Aba from the Japanese. In 1947, Chiang Kai-shek, China’s then president, issued maps with eleven dotted lines that included virtually all of the islands in the South China Sea. The eleven dotted lines have become the nine dotted lines that now the Philippines and Vietnam dispute.

Two days after Ma’s visit, the U.S. conducted another freedom of navigation patrol that came within 12 nautical miles of Chinese administered Triton Island in the Parcel Island chain without advanced notice. The US ambassador to the Philippines also announced that the U.S. would have joint patrols with the Philippines in the future.

While the U.S. sees China’s claims in the South China Sea as a sign of aggression that must be contained, many in China see the U.S. actions as military provocations and a threat to China’s sovereignty.

On social media, the nationalistic Chinese urge the government to adopt stronger responses, not just in rhetoric, but in action. “If we keep restraining ourselves,” some said, “we will be seen as weak, and Americans will bully us more.” Some even called for confronting the U.S. with “ship-collision” tactic (as China did with Vietnam’s ships), “if not using missiles or torpedoes.”

My concern is that these nationalistic Chinese are not in the minority. Most people in China consider the country’s sovereignty extremely important to them. This explains why Mr. Ma Ying-jeou visited Itu Aba – despite the U.S. disproval – as a show of support to China’s claims. On this issue, I am afraid that the Chinese people are behind their government.

One can argue that the United States has caused tensions in the South China Sea. For example, at the top of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” agenda is to deploy 60 percent of the US Navy to the Asia Pacific by 2020. This may have prompted the Chinese to be defensive, including building the artificial islands.

So far, US policy for the South China Sea has largely been unsuccessful. On a recent trip to Laos and Cambodia, Secretary of State John Kerry failed to get a “united front” from these countries to stand up against China’s territory claims. And, China is not likely to yield to the U.S. pressure. In fact, gauging from the discussions on Chinese social media, China will probably speed up island-building, citing the U.S. provocation as the reason.

It seems that the situation in the South China Sea will likely escalate. While neither the U.S. nor China wants a war, the chances of miscalculation on either side are extremely high. Let’s hope that all nations involved will continue dialogue until reaching a final solution. As Mr. Ma Ying-jeou said. “We all hope for peace, hope there is no conflict or war.”

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