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Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Recently, the South China Sea seems to be witnessing "polarized" opposition between China and the US as seen from the stinging speech by US Vice President Mike Pence that slammed China's South China Sea policy and America's frequent muscle-flexing in the waters. The US, together with its allies and partners, is using political, diplomatic and military means and public opinion to "contain" China. In particular, frequent military steps from the US side have made the South China Sea a frontline of confrontations.
In the past two years, the Trump administration has grown obviously more aware of the importance of the South China Sea in America's global strategy and its understanding of the challenges and threats the US faces in the area has virtually changed.
The US now views China's law enforcement activities, development of islands, deployment of defense facilities and promotion of "Code of Conduct" negotiations in the area as challenging Washington's control over the Asia-Pacific.
America's worries include: Its overwhelming military advantages may be impaired; it may be marginalized in the region's maritime rule-making, and the multilateral and bilateral security architecture led by the US may be shaken. The US thinks China is "elbowing the US out of the Western Pacific," affecting regional power distribution, code of conduct and security architecture. Based on this false judgment, the US is now dramatically increasing strategic investment in the South China Sea.
Nowadays, it seems the US sees greater domestic consensus on the South China Sea issue than any other foreign agenda. Political, academic and media circles unanimously hold that any act by China in the South China Sea is "expansive" and "aggressive", threatening American interests. To stand against China over the South China Sea issue has become "political correctness".
Since the first half of this year, there have been suggestions that the Trump administration should take stronger measures than conducting freedom of navigation operations in response to China's acts. Such opinion has been echoed in Pence's speech. What kind of stronger measures Washington will take remains uncertain, but it is certain that America's allies and partners in the Western Pacific such as Australia and Japan will stay with the US to increase their stakes in the South China Sea and up the ante against China.
In other words, viewing Beijing as an opponent that challenges and breaks the status quo in the region, the US is forming an "American camp" against China in the area with the help of the "Indo-Pacific strategy".
To China, the South China Sea means sovereignty, security and development. China needs to safeguard territorial sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction in the area and ensure secure corridors for energy import and freight transport. Facing an aggressive US in the South China Sea, China does not have many options. In theory, China may seek to establish codes of conduct with the US to practice restraint and limit tit-for-tat military measures. But now with escalating tensions between the two countries and China defined as a "strategic competitor" of the US, it is not easy to stop Washington from seeing Beijing as a threat and opponent.
Judging by the current circumstances, China has no other choice than taking countermeasures, including increasing military deployment in the region.
Shift of power is eternal in the evolution of international systems. But it develops into a vicious cycle if we believe it will cause conflicts and then conflicts will really become inevitable.
Sino-US contests in the South China Sea are exactly of this kind. If the US persists that the South China Sea will be the beginning of Beijing's attempt to challenge Washington's position as the world's only superpower and compete for the supremacy in the international system, this deep-rooted misperception is bound to cause "an inevitable war" between the two over the water body.
In this case, the South China Sea is highly likely to become the forefront of a "new cold war".
The author is an assistant research fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies. email@example.com