Insight: South China Sea a test for three major powers


Three powers with concerns in the region — the US, ASEAN and China — are now entangled in the South China Sea issue one way or another.

Some ASEAN members have overlapping sovereignty claims among themselves and also with China. The claims cover hundreds of tiny islands, islets, rocks and even reefs and sandbanks as well as the maritime projection of those tiny features, which under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are either only owned by countries within 12 nautical miles of territorial waters or are not owned at all due to their natural state as submerged features.

While the US is not a party to the dispute, it has economic and strategic interests in the region, and it could be drawn into an open conflict, because one of its treaty partners, the Philippines, has a sovereignty dispute with China.

The South China Sea dispute stands out significantly in the context of competition for influence between the US and China and fears of a repeat of the Peloponnesian war, where the rising power of Athens created fear in the dominant power of Sparta. The dispute looks even more dangerous when seen through a study led by Graham Allison at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which shows that 12 of 16 competitions between dominant and rising powers ended in bloodshed.

The global economic chaos created by a potential war in East and Southeast Asia, a region through which more than 50 percent of world trade passes, is simply unimaginable. And the possible side event of a nuclear launch by North Korea would breed decades of horrible human tragedy.

A powerful China is actually good for the world. It has the capacity to hold North Korea at bay, to fight transnational organized crimes, to fight pandemics and to address global climate change.

After all, China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It needs to have power commensurate with its challenges and responsibilities. The world wants a China that is rising peacefully and responsibly. Therefore, containment is the wrong strategy.

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