Since the second half of 2016, the South China Sea has restored its tranquility. However, the US still sends its warships to sail within 12 nautical miles of the islands that are Chinese territory not only in the South China Sea but also in China's other seas. It is the result of inevitable friction between the two major countries that are adapting to each other in East Asia and there is no need to make a fuss about it.
But on September 30, US Navy destroyer USS Decatur came within 12 nautical miles of Chinese islands in the South China Sea and was warded off by China's warships. The encounter triggered political noise.
On October 4, US Vice President Mike Pence delivered his speech on the Trump administration's policy toward China. He mentioned the event and said: "Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand. We will not be intimidated. We will not stand down.
Apart from the South China Sea disputes, Pence's speech is full of accusations against China, including diatribes against domestic and foreign affairs. On the one hand, Pence said, "We want a constructive relationship with Beijing," and on the other hand, he talked of confronting China. Washington's moves against China were in the nature of trade hegemony and bullying.
However, it intended to turn the US warships, which appeared at China's doorstep, into a new symbol of resisting Beijing's so-called bullying.Some media outlets and critics also hyped up the situation in the South China Sea. Some claimed that China is determined to confront the US and to expel the latter out of the Western Pacific. Some stressed China's territorial disputes with other countries and claimed that China wants to dominate the South China Sea. Some related the event with other China-US disputes and speculated if a "new Cold War" is coming. Some said that it is time for the US to pick a side in the South China Sea dispute and encourage its allies and partners to join the so-called free navigation.
In fact, the South China Sea has enjoyed its tranquility over the past two years. China, the Philippines and Vietnam, the three major claimant countries, have reached broad consensus in managing disputes and exploring cooperation. The Philippines promoted the preparation of joint exploitation with China, and Beijing agreed to push forward consultations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. It has been proved that without intervention, China and other relevant countries can understand each other and protect peace and stability in the region.
But such condition isn't in line with Washington's interests. The Trump administration treats the North Korean nuclear issue as the top priority of its East Asia policy, and it never gives up intervention in the South China Sea.
As the China-US trade conflict is likely to escalate into a comprehensive strategic confrontation, the South China Sea has become a card in Washington's hand again. This sums up the reason behind the encounter of Chinese and American military ships in the South China Sea.China and the US should now resist the temptation of escalating the trade dispute into a strategic confrontation. Current China-US relations are undoubtedly the worst since the two countries established diplomatic relations. But instead of fighting for hegemony, the basis of the two countries' conflicts is their different understanding of international rules, orders and global governance. There is no need to avoid these conflicts, but it's more dangerous to exaggerate them.
Howsoever severe the trade confrontation is, it is not a military conflict. But the South China Sea concerns sovereignty and military issues which are highly sensitive and may even trigger armed conflicts. If the China-US confrontation is exaggerated unlimitedly, it would only lead to more similar encounters of warships and both sides will fall into the Thucydides trap.
Experience proves that sovereignty disputes can be shelved. If each side has a different understanding of freedom of navigation, they should resort to politics and law, not show of force. If the hard-won tranquility in the South China Sea is destroyed again, the region's stability and peace will be sacrificed. The biggest victim would be the countries in the region themselves.