Can China and the United States establish mutual respect to reduce tensions?

On June 3, 2023, warships from the United States and Canada conducted joint military exercises in the South China Sea.

A Chinese warship (LY 132) overtook the USS Chung-Hoon, a guided missile destroyer, and raced across its path.

The US Indo-Pacific Command issued a statement saying the Chinese ship “maneuvers in an unsafe manner.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin responded that the United States “made the provocations first and China responded” and that “the actions taken by the Chinese military are completely justified, legal, safe and professional”.

This incident is one of many in these waters, where the United States is conducting what it calls Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercises. These FON actions are lawful under Article 87(1)(a) of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China is a signatory to the agreement, but the United States has refused to ratify it. US warships use the FON theme without legal rights or authorizations from the United Nations Security Council.

The US Freedom of Navigation Program was established in 1979, prior to and separately from the Convention.

Hours after that meeting in the South China Sea, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The Shangri-La Dialogue, held annually at the Shangri-La Hotel since 2002, brings together military leaders from across Asia with guests from countries such as the United States.

During a press conference, Austin was asked about the recent incident. He urged the Chinese government to “curb this kind of behavior, because I think there may be incidents that can get things out of control.”

The fact that the incident occurred due to a US and Canadian military exercise that was taking place near Chinese territorial waters did not prompt Austin to comment. He stressed the role of the United States in ensuring the ability of any country to “navigate the seas and fly in the skies in the international space.”

His Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Li Changfu, questioned Austin’s claim of innocence. “Why did all these incidents happen in areas close to China and not in areas close to other countries?” Li asked. “The best way to prevent this from happening is for military ships and aircraft not to come near our waters and airspace… Pay attention to your territorial waters and airspace so there are no problems.” Lee disputed the idea that the US Navy and Air Force are simply conducting FON exercises. He said, “I’m not here for an innocent ride.” “I’m here to provoke.”

Network tightening

When Austin wasn’t speaking to the press, he was busy in Singapore strengthening US military alliances aimed at tightening the net around China. And it held two important meetings, the first between the United States, Japan and Australia, and the second with its Philippine counterpart.

At the end of the trilateral meeting, the ministers issued a stark statement using words (“destabilizing” and “coercive”) that raised tensions against China.

By including the Philippines in this dialogue, the United States has fostered new military cooperation between Canberra, Manila, and Tokyo. This is based on the military agreement between Japan and the Philippines, signed in Tokyo in February 2023, in which Japan pledged to provide funds to the Philippines, and the latter allows the Japanese army to conduct training exercises in its islands and waters. The agreement also builds on the Australian-Japanese military alliance, signed in October 2022, which, without mentioning China, focuses on the “Indo-Pacific,” a US military euphemism often used in the context of FON exercises in and around Chinese waters.

Over the past two decades, the United States has built a series of military alliances against China. The first of these alliances is the Quartet, founded in 2008 and then relaunched after renewed interest from India, in November 2017. The four powers in the Quartet are Australia, India, Japan and the United States. In 2018, the U.S. Army renamed its Pacific Command (established in 1947) to Indo-Pacific Command and developed an Indo-Pacific strategy, the primary focus of which was China.

One of the reasons for renaming the operation was to draw India into the structure built by the United States by emphasizing tensions between India and China over the Line of Effective Control. The document shows how the United States has sought to fuel all conflicts in the region – some small and large – and to position itself as the defender of all Asian powers against “authoritarian neighbours”. Finding solutions to these differences is not on the agenda. The Indo-Pacific strategy focuses on the United States forcing China to subjugate itself to a new global alliance against it.

mutual respect

During the press conference in Singapore, Austin suggested that the Chinese government “should also take care of freedom of navigation because without it, I mean, it will suffer.” He said that China is a major trading power, and “if there are no laws, if there are no rules, things will fall apart very quickly for them too.”

Chinese Defense Minister Li has been very clear that his government is open to dialogue with the United States, and has said he is concerned about a “breakdown” in contacts between the great powers. However, Lee set an important condition for dialogue. He said that “mutual respect should be the basis of our communications”. So far, there is little evidence—even less in Singapore, despite Austen’s playful demeanor—of US respect for China’s sovereignty. Washington’s language has become increasingly harsh, even as it feigns softness.

* Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a contributing editor and chief correspondent for Globetrotter. He is editor of LeftWord Books and director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a non-resident senior fellow at the Zhongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University, China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His most recent books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) Withdrawing: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of American Power.

The article was published by Backpacker

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