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South China Sea dispute: China must step up public diplomacy
April 18, 2016, 6:28 am

China today faces a multitude of security challenges in its neighborhood, with the South China Sea leading the issues that will test China’s global strategy of peaceful development. What are the salient features of the security situation in China’s neighborhood?

First and foremost, it is the ever more complex security situation in Asia, in particular East Asia. The complexity is shaped by several factors as the regional security architecture transforms from the Cold War security order to a post-Cold War security order. A transitional period is as always full of perils.

Second, big-power competition intensifies as a result of a changing balance of power in the region. The American strategy of “rebalance in Asia-Pacific”, as explained by Obama Administration to be a response to China’s growing power in the region, is exactly such an example.

The rebalance strategy has three key pillars: 1. Reinforce and expand the US regional security framework predicated on bilateral military alliances with Japan, the Philippines and Australia, etc. 2. Enhance American military presence in the Western Pacific by deploying 60% of both US naval and air forces to the region by 2020. 3. Remake global economic rules with TPP at the center so as to exclude China from the rule-making, often repeated by President Obama as a goal of TPP.

Disputes to sovereignty and maritime rights are heating up, for instance between Russia and Japan over part of the Kuril Islands that Japan calls the northern territories, between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, and between China and some ASEAN nation over islands in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is definitely the focal point of regional attention and tension, because of, three things: China’s construction of facilities on the islets there, International arbitration pursued stubbornly by the Philippines, and consultations on DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea).

Bifurcation of regional security and economic orders increases tension in the region, causing fractures along historical and current fault lines. It is obvious that regional security arrangement is based on networks of bilateral military alliances between the US and Japan, the Philippines and some others while for economic growth and trade almost all countries are dependent on China.

What are the root causes of the above phenomenon?

Over the last few years, with China’s continuing strong growth, mutual suspicion and even hostility have increased between China and the US. The US has been overwhelmed by “strategic anxiety” never seen before and fear is growing that US dominance might be undermined by China, especially in Asia-Pacific, which to a large degree has hijacked American policy towards China, tilting it from “hedging” to defining China as its major competitor. The US is thus inclined to take advantage of issues such as the South China Sea to check China’s growing influence and power.

Another daunting difficulty is fostering a new security structure in Asia, especially in East Asia. The bifurcation of the security and economic tracks is one challenge and the overlapping of history and current reality is another.

The result is that security arrangements and economic reality cancel each other out, so that neither security nor economic objectives are sustainable if the two tracks are not realigned.

Two things in history have surfaced today to trouble the countries in the region. One is Japan’s refusal to acknowledge the war crimes committed during World War II, which leads to tensions between Japan and its neighbors.

China, which claims about 2 million square km of the maritime territory, has always maintained that “the situation in the South China Sea is stable [Xinhua]

China, which claims about 2 million square km of the maritime territory, has always maintained that “the situation in the South China Sea is stable [Xinhua]

Another is more complex and misleading: There are people with ulterior motives who try to link China’s growing political, economic and cultural influence today to a historical phenomenon where a cluster of countries from time to time were associated with China and viewed Chinese culture as the source of their own culture; they now insinuate that China is re-create that political, economic and cultural sphere of influence. In reality what existed in history was an evolving civilization phenomenon.

How to address such difficult challenges?

The pressing challenge is for China and the US as the two most influential powers to build a new type of big-power relations based on the principle of “no-conflict, no-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win through cooperation”. The success stories of China-US cooperation on climate change and economic growth are two of many examples that two nations need to follow whole-heartedly.

Next comes a reshaping of a regional security architecture rooted in mutual accommodation and respect for each other’s core interests that will guarantee security for all. The construction of such a new framework has to be based on the principle of “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security for all concerned” as proposed by President Xi of China. All those ideas of militarism, Cold War as well as check-and-balance are outdated and should be discarded. By common security, what is meant is building a community of nations with common interests and destiny. They respect the choices each nation makes regarding its political system, economic growth model, etc. Comprehensive security means addressing security in the context of regional governance.

Broadly speaking, security is all-encompassing to include political, military, economic, environmental and energy security, etc. Cooperative security means achieve security through dialogue and negotiation among countries in the region as well as with powers outside of the region, not resorting to the use of force or threat of force. Sustainable security means that both security and economic issues need to be addressed and the weird phenomenon of divergence between security arrangements and economic structure should be corrected.

Finally, to reduce the rising tensions in the South China Sea, it is a must that China and the US manage and control their friction on this issue within the context of building the new big-power relationship. At the same time the two nations should enhance their cooperation in areas such as fighting piracy and ensure safety of navigation. It is necessary for disputant nations around the South China Sea to follow the “dual-track” approach proposed by China to continue political dialogue and negotiation on the disputes.

As for the upcoming court case pushed by the Philippines, China needs to stand firm with her internationally recognized historical rights under the Treaty of the Law of the Sea, neither to acknowledge nor to accept whatever ruling might come out.

There are two other things that China should pursue with determination and smart use of public diplomacy.

The first of course is to continue her legitimate construction wherever necessary on islands and reefs in the South China Sea, which can serve China’s defensive purpose as well as put China in a better position to provide needed public services to the region.

The second is to use public diplomacy to tell “the China Story” on the South China Sea, since China often finds herself in situations where “stories” told by Western media and so-called experts are either twisted or groundless.

In sum, as the security framework is being transformed, the South China Sea issue needs to be viewed and addressed through the prism of the context of evolving security order of the region.


This article was first published in China-US Focus.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.