Why China is Playing Nice in the South China Sea

A recent editorial piece in China Daily draws attention to China’s legally-just behavior in a “calm and peaceful” South China Sea, and centers the blame for contention in this maritime region on the U.S.:

On March 15, Lt. Gen. Burton Field, the commander of U.S. Forces Japan, gave a press conference in Tokyo, demanding China to respect the freedom of navigation and take responsible actions in the South China Sea. It is actually not a responsible action that a senior commander of the U.S. armed forces targeted China once again by taking the “freedom of navigation of the South China Sea” issue as an excuse.

What is a responsible action? Are the actions of the United States sailing its warships to the South China Sea, frequently holding military drills clearly against China with the countries around the sea and trying to form a military alliance with them responsible actions? Are the actions of the United States forcing Asian countries to take side between the United States and China and even deliberately smearing normal cooperation between China and its surrounding countries responsible actions?

The current South China Sea is calm and peaceful, and all countries, including the United States, can fully enjoy the freedom of navigation there. The U.S. commander has ignored a fundamental fact that the rapid economic development of the Asia-Pacific Region was and is closely connected with the freedom of navigation of the South China Sea. The rapidly expanding trade between the United States and the Asia-Pacific Region is also closely connected with the freedom of navigation of the sea.

However, while enjoying the freedom of navigation of the South China Sea, the United States also keeps making troubles and repeatedly throws out the “freedom of navigation of the South China Sea” issue. The United States is deliberately blurring the issue of the freedom of navigation and the issue of territorial sovereignty and is deliberately creating a type of public opinion to pave the way for implementing its strategy.

The Economist confirms the China Daily op-ed’s point that waters are currently tranquil, and that China is respecting freedom of navigation in the area. The article also mentions that China has only itself to blame for a heightened U.S. presence that is largely welcomed by China’s neighbor states:

“THE South China Sea,” noted the People’s Daily this week, “is currently calm and peaceful”. As far as that goes, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece was quite right. But the sea also remains in dispute, with China and five other countries having claims to some or all of its islands, rocks and waters. It is also a cause of superpower rivalry. America asserts its own “national interest” in the freedom of navigation in the sea, and, like the South-East Asian claimants to the sea, sees China as the threat. For that, the ambiguity that shrouds China’s own position has much to do with it.

[…T]he People’s Daily was keen to blame America for any tension in the sea. It was responding to a press conference by General Burton Field, the commander of American forces in Japan, at which he called on China to respect the freedom of navigation.

The People’s Daily, rightly again, argued that this is not at present under threat. It had a point when it argued that America may be blurring the issues as part of its “return to Asia” strategy, which includes strengthening its ties with China’s neighbours. But for the uncomfortable realisation that this strategy has been broadly welcomed in the region, China has itself to blame.

An article in Foreign Affairs outlines China’s recent behavior in the region, recognizing that it has indeed been cordial as of lately. The article then explains why Beijing might be exercising more restraint when compared to the past:

Little noticed, however, has been China’s recent adoption of a new — and much more moderate — approach. The primary goals of the friendlier policy are to restore China’s tarnished image in East Asia and to reduce the rationale for a more active U.S. role there.

[…]The question, of course, is why did the Chinese shift to a more moderate approach? More than anything, Beijing has come to realize that its assertiveness was harming its broader foreign policy interests. One principle of China’s current grand strategy is to maintain good ties with great powers, its immediate neighbors, and the developing world. Through its actions in the South China Sea, China had undermined this principle and tarnished the cordial image in Southeast Asia that it had worked to cultivate in the preceding decade. It had created a shared interest among countries there in countering China — and an incentive for them to seek support from Washington. In so doing, China’s actions provided a strong rationale for greater U.S. involvement in the region and inserted the South China Sea disputes into the U.S.-Chinese relationship.

[…]Nevertheless, because the new approach reflects a strategic logic, it might endure, signaling a more significant Chinese foreign policy shift. As the 18th Party Congress draws near, Chinese leaders want a stable external environment, lest an international crisis upset the arrangements for this year’s leadership turnover. And even after new party heads are selected, they will likely try to avoid international crises while consolidating their power and focusing on China’s domestic challenges.

For more on China’s recent peaceful approaches to the South China Sea issue, see Pacific Big Enough for All, Says China, via CDT.