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US must back up the words in its South China Sea remark

On Saturday, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Michael Fuchs called on the parties in South China Sea territorial disputes to agree to a 'voluntary freeze' on provocative behavior. Fuchs appealed for a concrete development of principles laid out in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DoC) signed between China and ASEAN.

Couched in diplomatic pleasantries, the DoC affirms universal principles of non-interference, peaceful resolution to conflicts and “promotion of economic prosperity.” The beautiful-sounding points require parties to operate on the basis of existing international laws governing operations on the seas and diplomacy, and also affirm the right to free navigation as well as overflight.

It is evident to all, though, that those principles have been violated repeatedly since then. In the area that China claims 90 percent of, we have seen in the past three years the country blockading Second Thomas Shoal, setting up a municipal government on the island of Sansha, and recently constructing oil rigs in areas disputed by Vietnam. The Philippines released evidence of what it calls China reclaiming the Johnson Reef.

While Fuchs says that no single party is wholly responsible for tensions, he explicitly points out that the U.S. considers China to be provocative. And he is right. In the context of geopolitical strategic balance, China is clearly acting to take advantage of its resources, from population to economic wealth to military might.

Words that look pretty on paper have no meaning unless they can be translated into genuine improvement for the region at stake. For now, the lofty Holy Grail of “harmony” is clearly out of reach. Defining the more immediate goal in terms of establishing an environment where the propensity for military exchanges is lower may be more realistic for defusing conflicts.

The U.S. needs to back up its most recent call to the region with concrete steps that would help enforce the peace. It is counterproductive to throw out admonitions or appeals without making one's presence felt, and Washington does have to meet a degree of participation in the Asia-Pacific if it wants to promote the regional peace that is conducive to the overall interest.

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