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Kerry should send right signals in SE Asia trip

Updated: 2013-12-18 14:28
( Xinhua)

BEIJING - Maritime disputes in the South China Sea have worried many countries in the region, yet with solid efforts in the right direction, a potential regional flashpoint may turn out to be a good stepping stone to win-win cooperation.

For that to happen, regional players must first dump a zero-sum game mindset, which would close the door to any meaningful negotiation to bring back peace to the resource-rich waters.

Meanwhile, the United States, as the world's sole superpower with an unmatched military presence in the region, has an important role to play. Its words and deeds are often taken as a source of guidance, especially for old allies like the Philippines.

The trip of US Secretary of State John Kerry, which on Tuesday brought him to Manila, has dismayed many people in the region.

By criticizing China's recently established air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, and warning against a similar move over the South China Sea, Kerry has poured unfair criticism over China's entitled rights to self defense.

A day after granting 32.5 million US dollars to boost maritime security in Southeast Asia, most of it for Vietnam, Kerry pledged another 40 million dollars to the Philippines to beef up its capacity to police the South China Sea.

The top US diplomat is also expected to fast-track a deal on increasing US military presence in the Southeast Asian country, which has looked to Washington for help to press against China over territorial issues.

While there is no problem for the United States, an important Asia-Pacific country, to engage actively with Southeast Asian countries, it should make sure not to send the wrong signals that may encourage reckless acts of provocation and aggression of some countries in order to grab territories in disputed waters.

Apparently, the South China Sea has in the past few years become a new frontier in Washington's strategic pivot to Asia.

Picturing China as a common threat, American hawks have talked some Southeast Asian countries into believing a zero-sum game scenario over relations with China.

However, as is frequently observed in history, engagement with China has turned out to be a win-win game. China's growth for the past three decades has offered vast benefits to its neighbors. Trade bloomed, and investment soared, as the boon of China's policy of reform and opening up first reached those closest to its door.

The Chinese economy is so intertwined with the rest of the world that a peaceful path of development is imperative. As China grows richer, everyone benefits. A prosperous East Asia is in the interest of all countries that have a stake in the region, including the United States.

Economic vitality makes confrontation a less appealing, and hardly affordable, means to solve problems. In October, China proposed joint development with Vietnam and Brunei as a strategic and practical prelude to the final settlement of territorial disputes. The initiative, which promises solid gains from the rich oil and gas beneath the water, could foster mutual understanding and trust crucial for an eventual solution.

As part of a larger plan to cement relations with East Asian neighbors, China has also proposed to provide more public goods, including setting up an infrastructure investment bank and boosting maritime security cooperation, in order to promote regional peace and development.

Such creative and tangible cooperation projects are backed up by significant real investment commitments. It should relieve the nerves of Washington as China's constructive and cooperative engagement in East Asia won't threaten US interests.

To ensure a peaceful, cooperative regional environment, the United States should take the lead to embrace a positive-sum game mind-set.

On territorial issues, the world's sole super power has much to contribute if it can help dissipate distrust and foster cooperation over the South China Sea, where everyone can be a winner.

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