One of China's installations in the Spratly archipelago.

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What Are the U.S. and China Fighting Over?

Fu Ying is chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's National People's Congress, and of the Academic Committee of China's Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
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As the leaders of China and the U.S. meet in Hangzhou ahead of this weekend's Group of 20 summit, many would like to know whether differences over the South China Sea will cloud the bilateral relationship. The question is, what exactly are the two nations competing over in the area? And more importantly, can they find a mutually acceptable way to move forward?

QuickTake Territorial Disputes

The U.S. claims that its interest in the South China Sea is to ensure freedom of navigation. Indeed, critical shipping lanes run through the area, and keeping them open is important to all countries. China, a major global trading power, attaches no less importance to freedom of navigation than the U.S. does, perhaps even more.

Obviously, however, that's not all the U.S. is concerned about. It's worried mainly about preserving freedom of navigation for naval warships and other noncommercial vessels. Here, admittedly, there's a gap between how China and the U.S. each interpret the relevant provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as corresponding customary rules of international law.

In particular, the two sides have significantly differing views on the kind of military activities allowed within another country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. China, as a developing country, highly values its national sovereignty and security. It holds that under UNCLOS, the principle of freedom of navigation shouldn't be used to undermine the security of coastal countries. On the other hand, the U.S., as a global maritime power, has traditionally believed that its military is entitled to absolute freedom of navigation in other countries’ EEZs -- including oceanographic surveying, surveillance and military exercises.

Now, just as there's no dispute over allowing freedom of navigation for commercial ships in the South China Sea, there's no reason the two sides couldn't also wisely manage their differences over the rules for naval vessels. What the U.S. really wants, though, goes beyond its expressed concerns.

In fact, the U.S. views frictions with China from a geo-strategic perspective, seeing the South China Sea dispute as a test of which power will predominate in the Asia-Pacific. Ever since U.S. leaders started talking about a "pivot" or "rebalance" to Asia, they've worked under the assumption that a stronger China will inevitably pursue expansionism -- and thus needs to be countered by the U.S. and its allies.

Against this background, any move by China naturally looks like an attempt to weaken U.S. strategic primacy in the region. And at the same time, American rhetoric and activities clearly targeted at China are bound to trigger a strong Chinese reaction. Given such a “security dilemma,” the risk of escalated China-U.S. confrontation or even conflict is becoming increasingly serious.

The recent arbitration ruling in the case brought by the Philippines against China has aroused strong rhetorical reaction in China, which isn't opposed to UNCLOS, or even to arbitration as a means of dispute settlement, but simply to the way this particular tribunal was constituted and chose to rule, which has been perceived as an abuse of power. Hopefully, given the fierce debate over the tribunal's verdict, people in the region will again see the wisdom of dealing with such issues through friendly dialogue rather than confrontational means.

The countries bordering the South China Sea surely appreciate that tension stands in the way of regional integration and economic cooperation, to no one's benefit. Recently, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appointed former President Fidel Ramos as a special envoy to China for an ice-breaking trip. When I was invited to meet with Ramos privately in Hong Kong, I clearly sensed the new Philippine administration’s willingness to improve relations with China. China and the Philippines are both Asian countries and I believe that as long as there's good faith, it’s not beyond our reach to restore a relationship marked by friendship and cooperation.

Whether the South China Sea remains peaceful is, however, to a large extent dependent on how the U.S. and China choose to interact with each other. Specifically, when China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests are deemed to conflict with what the U.S. sees as its core national interests, it's vital that the two countries read the situation accurately, be clear about the stakes and find an appropriate angle from which each other’s positions can be appreciated.

There's room for both China and the U.S. to manage their relations better. The U.S. lacks experience in dealing with powers that are “neither ally nor foe,” while China has never interacted with the world’s superpower from a position of strength. Both sides are still exploring, and what they say and do will shape each other’s opinions and actions. They both need to remain humble, keep learning and avoid simply resorting to old beliefs and behavior.

The South China Sea is too vast to be controlled by any single country. Any attempt to build an exclusive sphere of influence may lead to possible confrontation and even military conflict. The only way forward is to seek coexistence and an overall harmonization of power, interests and rules.

China is the biggest coastal state bordering the South China Sea. It has sovereignty claims over the Nansha (also known as the Spratly) archipelago and controls several islands and reefs there. It's only fair that China is also entitled to legitimate maritime rights and interests in the area. The U.S. should respect these and shouldn't hamper efforts by China and neighboring countries to seek peaceful ways to address their differences.

In the meantime, China and the U.S. must continue to pursue meaningful dialogue, based on a shared commitment to ensure the maintenance of peace, security and unimpeded access to shipping lanes in the South China Sea. The best way to address their differences on maritime rules is by talking to one another, instead of posturing or dangerously testing each other with their military forces.

A persistent concern troubling the U.S. is that China is attempting to replace it as leader of the world order. What the U.S. strives to preserve, however, is a U.S.-led world order, which rests upon American values, its global military alliance structure and the network of international institutions centered on the United Nations.

China is excluded from this order in at least two aspects: First, China is ostracized for having a different political system; second, America's collective defense arrangements don't cover China’s security interests. Should China and the U.S. wish to avoid sliding into the so-called Thucydides trap of a head-on clash between a rising and an established power, they'll need to create a new concept of “order” that's more inclusive and can accommodate the interests and concerns of all countries, providing a common roof for all.

For China in particular, it's imperative that we make ourselves better understood by the rest of the world. China has grown from a poverty-stricken country into the world’s second-biggest economy in a little over 30 years. Its modernization has been “compressed” to a degree previously unheard of. However, it's not so easy to compress progress in thinking and discourse.

We in China must improve our ideas and ways of thinking faster and form a broader international vision, with more effective modes of expression and behavior. In this way, the rest of the world will be able to better appreciate our culture and the reasons why we talk and act the way we do. This will also help them to understand China’s foreign policy goals as we move into a new era where China inevitably plays a major role in global affairs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net