Both the U.S. and China have presented their respective positions on the South China Sea in the wake of escalating tensions between them in recent weeks, with neither willing to give way to the other.

China vs. U.S. South China Sea
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It has been almost two weeks since the U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operation took place in the South China Sea. These naval patrols took place near the controversial Chinese artificial islands, upon which China claims sovereignty and the economic exclusive zone surrounding the island. China has warned the United States in the wake of these naval patrols, terming them an act of provocation from the U.S. The United States was probably not expecting such a strong response from Beijing, and the war of words between the two has since intensified with analysts from both sides giving their takes on the evolving situation in the region.

Jinping’s statement on the South China Sea

China’s premiere, Xi Jinping, was in Singapore this past Saturday where he met his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou, in a historic meeting between the leaders of the two states. Jinping was delivering a speech at the National University of Singapore, where he explained China’s stance on the islands in South China Sea. He stated that these islands have been part of Chinese territory since ancient times and that it is the responsibility of the Chinese government and security forces to make sure they protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country. Jinping further added that his government will not compromise China’s legitimate maritime interests and that other countries should respect their territorial sovereignty.

The premier further criticized those who are hyping China’s rise as a threat in order to fulfill their own interests after. He said that such people are ignorant about Chinese culture and Chinese history and that they are pushing someone else’s agenda by pursuing this propaganda against China, either out of misunderstandings or bigotry.

It is not the first time that someone from China has made such a strong statement about the issue of the South China. Prior to this Saturday, China’s Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs commented about their claims on the islands and economic exclusive zone around them. However, the fact that the Chinese president has declared such a statement in Singapore, which is known as a hub for Southeast Asia commercial maritime activities, shows just how significant this matter is to China.

The statement from the Chinese president in the aftermath of U.S. naval patrols in the South China Sea shows that Beijing is in no mood to show flexibility on its stance towards the artificial islands, and Xi Jinping’s reaction should be viewed as a warning to Washington that freedom of navigation patrols will not be welcomed by China in any way.

On the opposite side of the Pacific, U.S. authorities have also talked at length about Washington’s plans for the Asia Pacific region and the South China Sea in general. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter delivered remarks about the whole situation at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on the same day Xi Jinping made it clear that China will not compromise on its territorial sovereignty.

U.S. to continue maritime maneuvers in South China Sea

Although Carter did not discuss several issues that the Obama administration has been reluctant to talk about in recent years, he did give some insight into what to expect from the United States in the coming months regarding the escalating situation in the South China Sea. There was no mention of missions being carried out by the USS Lassen in the Spratly Islands, and neither was there any explanation regarding the guided-missile destroyer that traveled within 12 nautical miles of the island of Subi Reef.

The United States has always maintained its stance that these activities are in compliance with the international legal requirements for innocent passage, but its rivals in the region have found it hard to believe the claims. The U.S. defense secretary did not offer much detail into these matters, but he did, however, speak about Washington’s plans for the South China Sea.

Carter stated that the United States would not back away from its position regarding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. He added that there is no reason not to continue it. America has done it before in all areas of the world and will continue to do so. Although Carter did not mention any specific dates for the next freedom of navigation patrol, he did hint that Washington is planning on carrying out a couple of these missions per quarter.

Commenting on China’s reaction to U.S. naval patrols in the South China Sea, Carter said that it would be a test of China’s commitment to peace and security. If China is true to its words, such missions would not bother it, and that is why the entire world is looking to China in areas such as maritime domain and cyberspace. Carter further added that other countries in the Asia Pacific region are really worried about China’s ambition in the South China Sea in the wake of its claim on the controversial islands in the sea. He warned China of regional isolation if Beijing does not change its course of action in the coming days.

Time for U.S. and China to show more maturity and flexibility

For now, things remain under control despite the increasing tensions between the two powers. The first freedom of navigation patrol resulted in a war of words from both sides with neither country showing any willingness to show any flexibility in its approach. With the United States set to continue freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea, how Beijing will respond in the not-so-distant future is still unclear. It is highly unlikely that the Chinese government will show the same restraint to future activities in its backyard as it has shown this time around.

Both the United States and China need to show maturity in their dealings with each other in the Asia Pacific region, and it would be foolish to think that the two countries will move towards a military conflict in the South China Sea even though backing down is not an option for either country.