3 Things China Can Do to Reduce South China Sea Tensions

China needs to reassure the U.S., reassure other Asian states, and be more transparent with its ambitions.

Dingding Chen
3 Things China Can Do to Reduce South China Sea Tensions
Credit: Screen capture of CSIS AMTI P8-A footage

After a U.S. P8-A Poseidon surveillance plane flew over China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, all attention is focused on what China will do next and whether the situation could escalate into a much more dangerous confrontation between the U.S. and China. This provocative move by the U.S. leaves no doubt that Washington is not going to tolerate China’s ongoing reclamation activities in the South China Sea, even though these reclamation activities do not violate international law as U.S. officials have admitted.

This is by far the clearest evidence that U.S.-China relations are indeed entering a tipping point, a claim made by renowned China expert David Lampton and perhaps shared by many others. It seems that a consensus has been reached within DC policy circles that something must be done to stop China’s seemingly expansionist behaviors in the South China Sea. Gone was the old ‘China consensus’ which hoped—or naively believed—that China could be brought into a U.S.-led liberal order and become a responsible stakeholder.

Thus, it should be crystal clear something is very wrong with the current state of U.S.-China relations. The key question is: where do we go from here? Unless one is already convinced by the was-as-inevitability thesis put forward by offensive realists, there is still lots of room for both countries to maneuver if they want to avoid war and enhance cooperation. As I have argued elsewhere, there is a worrying rise of anti-China discourse in the U.S., trying to exaggerate the China threat and China’s willingness to overthrow American hegemony in Asia. Likewise, there is a similar anti-U.S. discourse within China that interprets every U.S. move as evidence of containing China’s inevitable rise. Reasonable people from both sides would agree that both are worrying and both need to be carefully repelled. Thus it is very important, at this delicate stage, not to point fingers and blame the other side for growing tensions.

This means that both sides have responsibilities to reduce the tensions. Instead of a ‘rapid downward spiral of tensions,’ both sides should adopt a new approach, advanced by Professor Lyle Goldstein, that is titled ‘cooperation spiral.’ To that end, China can do the following three things to demonstrate China’s willingness regarding cooperation.

First, China needs to make more efforts to reassure the United States. As David Lampton correctly points out, the U.S. should rethink what primacy means in an era of globalization and China needs to be realistic about its strength and capabilities. It seems like China’s previous efforts to reassure the U.S. have fallen on deaf ears; so China needs to double its efforts. As I have argued elsewhere, the notion that China will challenge U.S. hegemony in Asia is a big myth. Those who continue to make this sort of ‘pushing the U.S. out of Asia’ argument are either ignorant of realities or have other intentions. Of course, as China continues to grow, its regional influence will also increase. But this is not necessarily a bad thing for the U.S., evidenced by the AIIB episode. The simple truth is that Asia needs both the U.S. and China to maintain peace and stability. Chinese President Xi Jinping can use his visit to the U.S. in September to reemphasize this crucial point: China respects U.S. leadership in Asia, period.

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Second, China needs to make more efforts to reassure its smaller Asian neighbors. It is important for China to keep in mind that to realize the ‘China dream,’ a peaceful and stable Asia is a necessary condition. The existing territorial disputes between China and other states are complex ones, but these can still be resolved peacefully. China should start either bilateral or multilateral dialogues with other parties involved in the disputes, but outside powers should maintain an impartial position and not take sides. This is what China’s ‘dual track approach’ is about.

Third, since the main worry is that China, one day, might dominate the South China Sea and turn it into China’s inner lake, China should be more open and transparent about its intentions in the region. Especially with regard to the man-made islands, China can promise that these would be used for peaceful and defensive purposes only.  When conditions are ripe, China can invite some international experts and journalists to visit some of the islands. And China can start joint rescue operations or joint development projects with other states.

All in all, there are things both China and the U.S. can do to cool the tensions in the South China Sea. It is time for the two largest economies in the world to take that responsibility seriously.