News Analysis: South China Sea of turmoil

The South China Sea continues to be a hotspot for China’s national interest and a thorn in its relationship with the US writes Willy Lam.

Suddenly, the Asia-Pacific Region’s as yet fragile recovery from the global financial crisis is threatened by an unexpected source: the precipitous worsening of ties between China and the United States following Pyongyang’s alleged sinking of the South Korean Warship Cheonan in late March.

Beijing has issued nine warnings against plans by the American and South Korean navies to hold exercises in the Yellow Sea. Even more portentous is the flare-up of sovereignty rows in the South China Sea in the wake of Washington’s late July statement that the resolution of disputes regarding the Spratly and Paracel Islands was a key American “national interest.” This was the Obama administration’s response to Beijing’s declaration a few months earlier that the South China Sea was a “core national interest” that brooked no foreign interference. Given that claimants to the South China Sea islands including Vietnam have openly welcomed an active American role in tackling this flashpoint, Beijing has accused Washington of exacerbating its time-honored “anti-China containment policy.”   

At least on the surface, China’s reactions to events such as enhanced military cooperation between the US and Vietnam have been dominated by hardline generals in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Rear-Admiral Yang Yi has accused the Barack Obama administration of “engaging in an increasingly tight encirclement of China” as well as provoking “enmity and confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Lieutenant-General Luo Yuan, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, has called for a stern military response to the American challenge. He cited this famous Mao Zedong dictum: “If people don’t offend me, I won’t offend them; but if people run afoul of me, I’ll certainly hit them back.”

The generals’ pugilistic stance was responsible for the Chinese government’s failure to give an invitation to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he was in the region in June. And as a result of the war of words between the two countries, it is also possible that President Hu Jintao will postpone his state visit to the US – originally planned for this summer or autumn – to next year.

Yet seasoned diplomatic analysts in Beijing believe that the Hu leadership is still gravitating toward mending fences not only with the US but with ASEAN, many of whose members have been disturbed by Beijing’s aggressive projection of hard power. 

The past month or so has witnessed more moderate and even conciliatory messages being publicized in the Chinese official media. Foremost among the “doves” in Beijing’s foreign -policy establishment is Pang Zhongying, a veteran international relations professor at the renowned Renmin University in the capital. In a recent article in the official Global Times newspaper, Pang argued that Beijing should actively consider a “multilateralist approach” to settling disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing has insisted for decades that sovereignty -related negotiations be conducted on a one-on-one basis between China on the one hand, and individual claimants on the other. Chinese authorities have refused to consider options including China-ASEAN negotiations or “internationalized” talks involving third parties such as the US.

“In the past two decades, China has accumulated a lot of experience in multilateral [diplomatic] operations,” Pang said, adding that the South China Sea issue could be resolved on a multilateral platform that involves parties including ASEAN, the US, Japan, and the United Nations. “Ruling out multilateralism will be tantamount to giving [China’s] opponents pretexts to attack China,” he said.

Earlier, Han Xudong, a national security expert at the National Defense University, raised eyebrows when he indicated that China should adopt a cautious attitude when unveiling its “core national interests.” One reason Xu cited was that “our comprehensive national strength, especially military power, is not yet sufficient to safeguard all our core national interests.” Thus, prematurely publicizing all China’s core interests might be counter-productive.

Moreover, the famous strategist pointed out that excessive stress on “core interests” could result in China’s diplomats and military personnel “putting emphasis only on core interests and neglecting non-core interests.” Professor Han recommended that Beijing release China’s lists of “core interests” in a phased, step-by-step fashion.

Most significantly, individual diplomats and scholars have in private cited the formula of “joint development while setting aside sovereignty” for resolving the South China Sea impasse. This modus operandi was used during the theoretical agreement reached between President Hu Jintao and then Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda in 2008 for settling sovereignty disputes over the East China Sea. However, Beijing and Tokyo have since failed to go one step further by formalizing the Hu-Fukuda agreement into a full-fledged treaty.

One reason is opposition “joint development” expressed by Chinese nationalists as well as PLA generals. Given signs that other ASEAN countries may follow in the footsteps of Vietnam in forming an apparently anti-China strategic alliance with the US, it is likely that Beijing may become more proactive in applying the “joint development” schema. And depending on the eventual success of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Zone, which began operation on January 1 this year, economic mutual-dependency between China and Southeast Asian countries might provide another fillip to a peaceful, rational solution to the South China Sea imbroglio.

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