China's role in solving the South China Sea issue

By Zheng Yongnian
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, April 30, 2016
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The South China Sea issue has become increasingly complicated and serious, typified by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter postponing his scheduled visit to China because of the issue. A statement on maritime security was issued after the Hiroshima G7 foreign ministers' meeting. Although not explicitly mentioning China, the statement clearly criticized its conduct in the South China Sea.

A new lighthouse has been put into use in the South China Sea, built by China’s Ministry of Transport, on April 5, 2016. The establishment will provide orientation and other safety services to ships and boats. [Photo: Xinhua]

U.S.-Philippine joint military drills, Japan's involvement, Australian and other countries' expressed concerns undoubtedly target China. It is not difficult to see that the role of the United States is of great importance. Although the Chinese government has time and again stated that the South China Sea issue involves China's sovereign affairs, as well as a bilateral dispute between China and its neighbors, the United States adopts an interventionist policy.

Some observers detect a more united and consistent policy among countries in the region toward China. A new alliance, led by the United States targeting China, is emerging, above all seeking to force China to make concessions.

From a Chinese perspective, there's little space to retreat. As a rising power, it has no reason to give up its identified sovereignty. In the South China Sea, just as Vietnam and the Philippines have nationalist sentiments, so does China.

So, is the pessimism of certain observers justified? Will the issue lead to open conflict?

This is a complicated issue and needs a detailed analysis. The South China Sea issue is actually comprised of three levels, namely, the relationship between China and the United States, the relationship between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the relationship between China and other national claimants.

In regard to China-U.S. relations, there are several factors behind the latter's policy. First, the main concern of the United States is "freedom of navigation" which means it can freely go anywhere it wants. Second, the United States is wrong in its strategic judgment that China's land reclamation and island building is "territorial expansion." Third, the United States worries China's "militarization" will hinder regional peace.

Interpretative contradictions in international law

Japan has its own wishful thinking regarding the issue. It wants to use the U.S.-Japanese alliance to intervene in Southeast Asian affairs.

The ASEAN countries can be divided into two parts, namely claimant and non-claimant countries, of which the latter have no conflict with China on sovereignty, but they are still concerned about navigational freedom, regional stability, and organizational solidarity. A regular phenomenon in international politics is that big countries are not willing to resort to international law to protect themselves but small countries are.

There is a huge conflict between International Maritime Law and the historical rights of China in the South China Sea. The "nine-dash line" is the historical product that China inherited, while International Maritime Law is a very contemporary entity. In China's view, such a contemporary law cannot solve complicated historical problems like the South China Sea issue.

China now stresses its sovereignty over the islands, but the safety of maritime navigation is the concern of all countries. China has no reason to damage navigational safety in the region. Any problem occurring in the South China Sea will impact negatively on China's national economy, because more than 80 percent of its import and export trade passes through these waters.

In recent years, China has proposed a "dual-track" approach in which claimant countries properly solve the issues through negotiations so that China and ASEAN jointly safeguard the peace and stability of the South China Sea. In other words, the sovereignty issue is resolved through bilateral negotiations, while the safety of maritime navigation should be settled through multinational negotiations. In this regard, China is trying to avoid such a scenario: The ASEAN is inclined to reach consensus on what is bad to China, but diverges on what is good to China.

China plays a key role in solving the deadlock

The relationship between China and other claimant countries is the key. China and these countries are neighbors and it knows well how to get along and how to resolve problem. For example, China made a number of concessions in the settlement of its land border dispute with Vietnam. This case shows that there is no justification for accusing China of being "a big country bullying a small one."

If the South China Sea issue is deadlocked, this may not be a bad thing, because it is better than a hurried, poorly-thought-out solution. However, each party must ensure that the issue doesn't escalate into a public conflict or even a war.

China, therefore, must be aware of the following points.

First, it now takes the leading position. Previously, China always had to respond to other countries' actions; now, the situation is reversed.

Second, China must be patient and behave rationally.

Third, China must have self-confidence. The costs for the United States in the South China Sea are much higher than those of China. As long as China has no ambition to expand, the U.S. cannot hold on too long.

Fourth, China and ASEAN still have a lot of space for diplomatic mediation. Most of the ASEAN countries want to be friendly with China. In fact, economic interdependence between China and ASEAN is quite high.

Fifth, there is still room for the improvement of the relations between China and other claimant countries. Unlike the United States, who cut off relations with Cuba for half a century, China never goes to extremes. For example, over the past years, China has still maintained good economic and trade relations with Vietnam and the Philippines despite the chill in political and diplomatic relations.

Sixth, China may treat the big countries outside the region more openly. For example, it can allow the United States and ASEAN countries to also use its facilities to jointly safeguard maritime security.

Seventh, even after relevant countries actually occupy disputed islands, China can still advocate a return to the negotiation table and a return to the principle of "shelving disputes and joint development" which was advocated by Deng Xiaoping a long time ago.

For China, any major international conflicts in the South China Sea will undoubtedly have a very negative impact on its internal construction and foreign affairs. Stabilizing the regional situation and settling the problems peacefully will make China a model in regard to a peaceful rise. It has a great potential in solving regional issues.

Zheng Yongnian is director of the East Asian Institute at theNational University of Singapore and an expert in China issues.

This article was translated by Li Jingrong based on the original unabridged version published in Chinese.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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