Recently, some foreign media claim that China has become increasingly “aggressive” in the South China Sea. They even falsely declare that China has taken “provocative actions” to escalate the tensions in the sea and blame China for the “instability” in this area.
These reports are obviously inconsistent with the facts. When it comes to disputes in the South China Sea, China is not the troublemaker. On the contrary, some directly concerned parties have frequently taken provocative actions and ignited incidents, while some non-parties keep instigating other countries in the dispute, trying to push the multilateralization and internationalization of this issue.
That is the true cause of the escalation of the situation. The international media should not confuse truth and falsehood, be biased in favor of the conflict instigator, or deliberately ignore the great efforts and contributions made by China for a stable South China Sea.
Who’s the instigator of rising tensions in the South China Sea?
Since 2009, tensions over South China Sea issues have mounted. It is related to the impact of traditional and non-traditional security factors and also the outcome of the interaction between inside and outside powers in the region. In particular, the US global strategic focus shift to Asia triggered the reconstruction of the post-Cold War geopolitical landscape in Southeast Asia.
Taking advantage of this occasion, some directly concerned countries deliberately consolidate their claims, trying to push the multilateralization and internationalization of the South China Sea dispute with the help of outside powers. Moreover, some countries outside the region follow the US global strategy shift to Asia to increase their interference in South China Sea affairs, which further escalated the geopolitical competition in this area and finally pushed the South China Sea into becoming an international hot spot.
Some claimant states frequently take provocative actions in the South China Sea, which caused the tensions in this region. On February 17, 2009, the Philippine Congress passed the Baselines Bill, which includes Huangyan Island and some islands and reefs of Nansha Islands as Philippine “territory.”
In April and July 2009, Vietnam government officially appointed their chief executives of the Xisha Islands and Nansha Islands, and strengthened their de facto occupation on these islands through sending immigrants, organizing public tourism activities, and other measures.
In March and May 2011, the Philippines and Vietnam took unilateral actions to explore the resources in disputed areas of the South China Sea. This year, on April 10, the Philippines sent warships to harass Chinese fishing boats which were operating normally in the Huangyan Island lagoon. Moreover, the Philippines intentionally ignited the conflict through illegal actions like detaining the fishermen and conducting onboard inspection, creating a standoff.
On June 21, the National Assembly of Vietnam adopted the Vietnamese Law of the Sea which places China’s Xisha and Nansha islands under Vietnamese “sovereignty” and “jurisdiction.”
The abovementioned and follow-up actions taken by the concerned parties in the dispute have not only infringed on China’s territorial sovereignty and China’s maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, but also violated the principal consensus demonstrated in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed by China and ASEAN countries in 2002 and relevant commitments made by those countries. This is the main cause of the escalating tensions on this issue.
Outside powers intervene in South China Sea affairs, which further intensifies the tensions on this issue. On July 23, 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a public speech on the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Hanoi of Vietnam, declaring the high-profile intervention of the US in the South China Sea dispute. On November 19, 2011, US President Barack Obama proposed a framework for a multilateral resolution to the South China Sea issue on the sixth East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Moreover, 2012 has seen more and more high-level US officials make public remarks regarding South China Sea issue, openly intervening in this regional dispute. In addition, US forces strengthened their deployment and presence in the West Pacific area, including the South China Sea. Under such circumstances, some other countries outside the region echo, follow or even work in concert with the US to intervene in South China Sea dispute through economic aid, bilateral military cooperation, participating in the oil and gas exploration in disputed areas, and other ways.
For instance, shortly after the Huangyan Island standoff, the US announced the plan to help the Philippines to build a new National Coast Watch Center; Japan, in addition, proposed providing more than 10 patrol ships to the Philippines to enhance the country’s sea power. Obviously, these actions by US and Japan further complicated the South China Sea situation.
China a main contributor to a peaceful and stable South China Sea
China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This has long been recognized by the international community. Based on the principles of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and strengthening cooperation with neighboring countries, China has been exercising self-restraint and promoting dialogue and cooperation with the countries concerned in a constructive manner. China’s contributions to the regional stability are there for all to see.
China is playing a constructive role in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea. Peace and stability in the South China Sea are closely related to the vital interests of China, who benefits from the safe and unimpeded navigation as well as the regional trade links and economic prosperity. China cherishes and is committed to safeguarding this hard-won situation. However, recently some foreign political figures, policy analysts and scholars condemn China’s practices as “the big bullying the small, the strong domineering over the weak.”
They even speculate that China is taking the delaying or dodging tactics so as to dominate the resolution of the disputes when a favorable time comes. Such accusations are totally groundless. China insists on solving international disputes through peaceful negotiations.
China is ready to negotiate with the countries concerned to handle the South China Sea disputes in a proper manner in accordance with the universally recognized international laws including the principles and legal regime established under UNCLOS. Early in the 1980s, China proposed “shelving the disputes and seeking for joint development,” which showed its sincerity and willingness to a proper settlement of the SCS disputes.
In December 2000, China and Vietnam after many years of negotiation, signed the Agreement on the Delimitation of the Beibu Gulf (Tonkin Gulf), leading to the delimitation of the territorial sea, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and continental shelf between the two countries. In October 2003, China joined ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and signed with ASEAN the Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity, through which the strategic mutual trust was greatly enhanced.
In July 2011, China and ASEAN adopted the Guidelines to Implement the DOC, which paved the way for further practical cooperation in the South China Sea. In November 2011, China proposed setting up a 3 billion yuan ($480 million) China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund in order to bring about multi-tiered and all-round maritime cooperation with ASEAN.
With its positive actions and goodwill gestures, China has been playing an important role in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea. It could be seen, from the facts of the equitable and reasonable demarcation of the Beibu Gulf with Vietnam as well as the self-restraint exercise throughout the Huangyan Island standoff, that China as a big country has never bullied the small ones.
Some other facts should not be ignored either. The US emphasizes that it does not take a position and is neutral in the South China Sea disputes. However, a high-profile US government official intentionally used the “West Philippine Sea” instead of the internationally recognized name “the South China Sea,” and a US senator criticized the normal bid inviting action by a Chinese oil company and accused it as violating Vietnam’s territorial rights. Seeing all these, people cannot but question what kind of neutrality the US is displaying.
Furthermore, on August 3, 2012, the US Department of State issued a press statement on the South China Sea. The statement showed total disregard of the facts, confounded right and wrong, and made unfounded accusations against China, intentionally complicating the situation and escalating the disputes in the South China Sea.
When seeking the root causes for the unrest in the South China Sea since 2009, in contrast with China’s commitment to peace and stability, some countries have been provoking discord and disputes and stirring up trouble on purpose. This must be exposed to and condemned by international opinion.
China is the Protector of a Peaceful and Stable South China Sea. China’s sovereignty claim over the four island groups in the South China Sea has ample historical and legal evidence. Certain foreign media are hyping up the “China threat in the South China Sea,” claiming that China is coming up with its own version of the Monroe Doctrine in Asia.
Certain state leaders claim that China wants to turn the South China Sea into a “Chinese Lake,” and that they can not allow China to “exercise disproportionate control” over the South China Sea, so on and so forth. All those subjective assumptions are clearly not true. China’s modern history was one of miserable suffering from colonization and invasion rather than hegemony and expansion.
China adheres to the road of peaceful development, unswervingly pursuing an independent foreign policy of peace and a defense policy that is defensive in nature rather than trying to expand its sphere of influence. Never seeking hegemony is China’s solemn commitment to the whole world.
China is a committed protector of the peace and stability of the South China Sea. It has never claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, nor will it expand its current claim. The Chinese people love peace, and uphold the principle of good neighborly friendship.
Yet, it does not mean that China will accept its territorial sovereignty or maritime rights and interests being infringed by foreign countries. China respects other countries, and is willing to settle territorial and jurisdictional disputes with its neighbors through consultations and negotiations on a friendly and equal basis. But China’s legitimate rights and appeals must get its due respect and assurance.
China has always exercised self-restraint on the South China Sea issue, and has taken reasonable and irreproachable reactions to the challenges created by relevant states. Setting up Sansha city recently was the Chinese government’s necessary adjustment of the local administrative agencies, the offices in Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha islands which have existed since 1959. Such conduct is completely within China’s sovereignty. As an outsider, the US is neither a South China Sea claimant state, nor a signatory state to the UNCLOS, and thus neither justified nor qualified to criticize China.
Dialogue and cooperation the only solution to the South China Sea issue
In recent years, with the rising arms race in the South China Sea region, the countries concerned are vying to purchase advanced weapons and equipment and are intensifying maritime military activities such as military drills and control, posing a threat to regional security. Despite some noises and incidents that raise tension within the region, the overall situation of the South China Sea remains stable and manageable.
All parities concerned should actively seek to solve related disputes through dialogue and consultation. They should refrain from escalating, complicating and internationalizing the disputes and avoid creating conflicts and tension within the region. This services the common interests of all countries including the directly engaged ones.
To maintain freedom and safety of navigation in the region and eliminate the negative impact of traditional and non-traditional security factors is very significant for economic prosperity in East Asia and its surrounding areas and global economic recovery at large.
South China Sea is one of the world’s most important sea lanes. China has always respected the freedom of navigation and overflight that other countries enjoy in the South China Sea according to international laws. It is also ready to work together with other parties concerned to promote international cooperation on maritime security in the region.
Yet, China opposes any outsider meddling with the South China Sea issue using the excuse of “maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.” What littoral states should do right now is to seize the opportunity of economic globalization and regional integration to participate in international economic cooperation and competition so as to enhance economic growth and regional stability.
Exercising self-restraint and seeking consensus while shelving differences is the wise step to take at present to address the South China Sea issue, while consultation, dialogue and pragmatic cooperation will be the only way to its final settlement. China has been fulfilling its commitments to regional stability and development with real actions. Other countries concerned shall also undertake their unshirkable responsibilities and duties.
An important part of dialogue and cooperation between China and ASEAN countries now is to carry out the Guidelines for Implementing the DOC and a series of follow-up actions. One element of the guidelines is to discuss and formulate a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), toward which China’s attitude is open and active. Currently, the most pressing task is for parties concerned to respect and honor the spirit of the DOC, push forward direct negotiations and consultations, and enhance practical cooperation.
This is conducive to not only a peaceful and stable South China Sea but also the common interest of all parties. China stands ready to join hands with other countries concerned to settle related disputes by peaceful means, strengthen mutual trust, avoid misunderstanding, deepen cooperation and develop South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.
By Wu Shicun, Global Times
The author is director of the National Institute for China Sea Studies. The article was originally published in Qiu Shi, the official magazine of the CPC Central Committee.