WASHINGTON, DC: “Don’t push China.” Even as the Chinese and America’s Philippine allies engage in their latest standoff at sea over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, the message from an array of elder statesmen is that the U.S. needs to avoid any kind of confrontation with China – and the Obama Administration seems to be listening.

“We are often accused of this so-called pivot to the Pacific being all about China,” said the Vice-Chief of the Joint Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld on Wednesday morning, addressing the annual conference of the relentlessly centrist Center for Strategic and International Studies. But the US has many other interests in the region — most notably at the moment North Korea, but also the reform process in Myanmar (aka Burma) — where it and China have common ground. “It should be viewed not as containing China, it should be viewed as balancing China,” Winnefeld said of the new strategy. “I don’t think China should view this as a threat….We can all get along out there.”

That’s music to Singaporean ears, but the Filipinos aren’t so sure. “We all want to settle this dispute peacefully, but the question I have is how would this be settled peacefully if China refuses to abide by international law, which is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea?” asked the Philippine ambassador to Washington, Jose Cuisia, rising from the audience at a CSIS forum later in the day on the oil-rich and much-disputed South China Sea. (Ironically, China has signed the Law of the Sea treaty, but the US has not).

In the current confrontation, the Philippine Navy flagship Gregorio del Pilar (pictured) has attempted to arrest Chinese fisherman operating in the disputed waters of the Scarborough Shoal, only to be blocked by Chinese maritime surveillance vessels. While fishing rights are at stake today — themselves big business in the world’s most populous region — literally underneath that issue there lie oil reserves estimated to match those of Alaska and natural gas deposits possibly exceeding the Gulf of Mexico’s. The Philippines have even begun to auction lots in to energy companies for exploration, much to China’s ire. The waters in contention are much closer to the Philippine home islands — and for that matter to Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, all of which have staked competing claims — than they are to the Chinese mainland, but Beijing claims the area’s barely habitable islets as Chinese soil and argues on that basis that almost the entire South China Sea is legally its exclusive offshore waters. Asked Amb. Cuisia, “How can you come to a peaceful resolution when you can’t even agree on a basis?”

The assembled experts urged the Filipinos to be patient. “[To] bring it to a resolution is very difficult,” answered Joseph Prueher, a retired admiral who has served both as chief of the Pentagon’s Pacific Command and the US ambassador to Beijing. Chinese leader Hu Jintao has recently reemphasized that for the PRC, “economic development trumps everything else,” Prueher said. “The ‘everything else’ gets in what I would describe as the kick-the-can category. [Let's] not force them to a head, [but rather] manage them. So they don’t get resolved, but they get put in a box of something you can live with for a while….That probably is not very satisfactory,” he summed up.

“If you force China, just before its national party congress, to make a decision on this issue, what outcome might you get?” added Ernest Bower, the panel’s moderator and Southeast Asia director at CSIS. In a year or two, he urged, the new leaders now taking the helm in Beijing — currently distracted not only by the usual power struggles but by the scandal over the once up-and-coming mayor of Chongqing, Bo Xilai — might feel secure enough to give a more satisfactory answer. But for now, agreed Adm. Prueher, the current leadership transition makes it harder for Chinese leaders to sound conciliatory notes on international disputes, much as the US election heightens anti-Chinese rhetoric on this side of the Pacific.

Overall, Prueher and other panelists argued, the Chinese have dialed back some of their more provocative tactics of recent years — sabotaging seismic exploration equipment, detaining Vietnamese fishermen, sending ships to physically shove other nations’ vessels aside — and adopted a more conciliatory stance for fear of uniting their smaller neighbors against them. And it’s worth noting that the Chinese have kept their regular PLA Navy warships out of the current confrontation, relying on civilian maritime surveillance vessels instead. “We need to acknowledge China’s different behavior… We should be grateful for it,” Prueher said. At the same time, he added, “we should continue to support our friends and allies in the region so they don’t get run over.”

The don’t-push-China theme even resonated at a panel on the Middle East with the Statler and Waldorf of centrist internationalism, National Security Advisors emeritus Zbigniev Brzezinski (Jimmy Carter) and Brent Scowcroft (Bush elder). The last thing we should be doing in the current crisis over Syria, Brzezinksi said, is “freezing out the Russians or the Chinese with condemnations to the effect that their conduct is disgraceful or disgusting” because they refuse to condemn the Assad regime.

Don’t be surprised, agreed Scowcroft, that the Chinese and Russians have rejected any UN resolution condemning Bashar al-Assad — not after the US and NATO used last year’s resolution against Muammar Gaddhafi to justify his ouster. “To condemn the Russians and the Chinese for vetoing a similar resolution on Syria is — well, I found it astonishing,” said Scowcroft. “What they’re saying is ‘You fooled us once, you’re not going to fool us again, you’re out for regime change in the region,’ [and] regime change ipso facto is anathema for the Chinese,” who fear creating any precedent for international interference in their control of Tibet and their claim to Taiwan.

Compared to those two hot-buttons, the South China Sea is a much less emotional one for Chinese nationalists: “I don’t think it’s in the same category,” said Adm. Prueher. But it still strikes some of the same chords with Chinese nationalists, who are uneasily balanced between a prickly pride in their country’s rise to global power and bitter memories of how the West exploited China’s weakness in the 19th and 20th centuries. “They bristle at surveillance flights that are in international waters that are close to their coastline,” for example, Prueher said. “We got used to that during the Cold War,” when the Soviets regularly buzzed US airspace and waters, but the Chinese have not, which can lead to crises like the downing of a Navy P-3 Orion spyplane off Hainan Island in 2001. For diplomats like Prueher, it’s critical to keep the US-China relationship out of such intensely emotional, highly public waters. “Between the US and China, the South China Sea is one of the particular friction points that is solvable; it’s manageable,” said Prueher. “But we need to do it… with quiet diplomacy.”

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