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China-Asean should keep a cool head over South China Sea
Publication Date : 25-06-2012
The Nation Editor-in-Chief Suthichai Yoon interviews Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying in Bangkok over the weekend.
Suthichai: My first question is about China-Thailand relations, since you are here to talk with the Thai government and find out what the Thai people think about Thailand's relations with China.
Fu Ying: China-Thailand relations are exceptionally good. Our two peoples are very close to each other culturally and emotionally. Our two peoples are both polite, respect others, and dignified but not aggressive. Therefore, we feel very comfortable dealing with each other. Every year 1.7 million Chinese people travel to Thailand (2.2 million both ways). There is a huge potential in economic cooperation between the two countries. China has always responded positively to Thailand's initiatives of cooperation.
As Thailand assumes the role of Asean coordinator for China in the coming July, the expectations on both sides are high. We are happy to work with Thailand in the next three years. As China-Asean relations reach an important period, we are confident that with Thailand as the coordinator, this will help move China-Asean relations forward.
Suthichai: What is your view on Asean in general and on China-Asean relations?
Fu Ying: Back in the early 1980s, as China started its reforms and opening-up, an important foreign policy angle is its relationship with its neighbours. As you may remember, the region was still under the shadow of Cold War division. China started to increase its input in the region. Its relations with its neighbours picked up gradually. We built better mutual understanding, tried to raise the comfort level for each other and at the same time made enormous efforts to build up economic cooperation.
Relations with Asean countries are of unquestionable priority for China. Asean was the first region to have a functioning FTA with China, the first to be accorded approved tourist destination status, and the first to work with China on connectivity.
Another good point about China-Asean relations is that China can comfortably promote our relations with Asean and with Asean member countries on a par with each other. These relations can grow together in a complementary way.
Since our dialogue partnership was set up in the early 1990s, China-Asean relations have enjoyed robust development. We have also encountered a lot of challenges. Yet, rather than hurting our relations, these challenges were turned into opportunities to reinforce our relations.
Take the financial crisis of 1997 as an example - if we meant ill towards each other, we could easily hurt each other. The fact is that tackling the crisis made us more united. China's commitment to not devalue its currency in the middle of competitive devaluation practically set up a wall of defence against the spread of the crisis.
In building the China-Asean FTA, again we tried to make sure that the benefit went to Asean countries through the early harvest programme. As an interesting example of how much Asean products have entered the Chinese market, I once visited a remote town in China, only to find durian from Thailand on a street there!
During the recent financial crisis, our region moved very fast to get prepared against the crisis. Generally speaking, this region has been fairly successful and has managed to continue the growth. There is a lot of preparedness against problems.
However, there are fragilities in the region and we cannot afford to be complacent. We must carefully make sure that we continue to succeed in today's turbulent times. It's important that we sit down often for discussions to understand the situation. There's a good framework in the region under the Chiang Mai Initiative and if something happens, we should be able to take firm moves. China will definitely work together with Asean and other countries. We have good basis to work through challenges.
In one word, the atmosphere for China-Asean cooperation has been very good. The China-Asean relationship also enjoys strong popular support on both sides.
Suthichai: What is the Chinese government’s view of the new US "rebalancing" of forces in Asia and Pacific? Do you agree that the repositioning of US forces to Asia is not aimed at containing China? What role should the US play in Asia?
Fu Ying: We have to see that Asia as a whole has been a success story after the Cold War. When you look around the world, problems do occur here and there. Here you have a region where partnership and cooperation prevails, so does economic prosperity and internal stability in most countries. China has had 30 years of reform and at the same time maintained strong political stability.
Our region also has the strongest vitality in the world. It accounts for roughly 45 per cent of the global population and more than 30 per cent of the global economy. Asia also has a big cluster of emerging economies in the world. Asian countries together contribute more than 30 per cent to global economic growth.
It is therefore hardly surprising that we became attractive to many countries, including the US. As a country known for strategic vision, it's only natural that the US wants to engage more with the region.
Secondly, the US has always had a continuous presence in the region. One can hardly recall an important period in the past decades when the US was absent from the region.
China has no problem accepting the US presence and its positive influence in the Asia Pacific. We welcome a constructive US role in regional affairs. An important part of China's effort to build a peaceful and cooperative external environment is to maintain overall cooperation with the US.
On the other hand, there is growing concern coming from media and academics in China over the US heavy emphasis on security agenda in the region. I notice that the same concern is also heard in other Asian countries as well. Some say China is the "elephant in the room". Some others worry about a possible return of the Cold War.
As far as I can see it, maybe it's still early to draw conclusions. The US has loudly denied any intention to contain China. We will just take them at their words. Creating an enemy or making a self-fulfilling prophecy doesn't seem to be a good idea.
China is only half way with industrialisation. Its huge population means that China’s per capita GDP will remain low for a long time to come. It is still a developing country working hard to address the imbalances and the uncoordinated and unsustain?able aspects of its economy. Imagine a country four times the population of the United States. What a strong growth engine for Asia and for the world that the modernisation process of this country would generate.
It is not just about China. India and Brazil, for example, are also growing fast. This has brought about enormous changes to the international landscape. It is not possible to contain the momentum of growth driven by such big number of people who want to have a better life.
As the world around us has changed fundamentally, it would be naive to try to use an old frame to hold a new picture. We need to be creative and learn to cope with this new change. Therefore, it is a time to learn lessons from the past, but not using the past to understand the present.
For the US, it's in its interest to play a wider role in the region. There's a lot more for the US to do in the region, such as in the fields of economic cooperation, culture, science and technology.
Suthichai: How does China propose to solve conflicts in the South China Sea? Should the world worry about freedom of navigation in this area?
Fu Ying: The South China Sea has come under the spotlight in recent years. Yet few people seem to remember that there hasn’t been any dispute in this area for many years in the past.
Let's look at more recent history, following the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation adopted towards the end of World War II, China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea. This restoration of Chinese sovereignty was witnessed by major powers such as the US, UK and former USSR and the international community at large. Problems began in the 1970s.
Some countries started to take some of the islands in the area. Since the 1980s, with the adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, some countries started to claim the oil and gas resources around the Nansha Islands. However, it should be understood that new conventions could not be implemented retroactively, nor could Unclos be applicable in the resolution of territorial disputes.
China takes rules and norms seriously. We are opposed to acts of creating instability and chaos in the South China Sea. Thirty years ago, Mr Deng Xiaoping, while holding firm the principle of Chinese sovereignty over the Nansha Islands, proposed the idea of ’shelving disputes and going for common development’ around the Nansha Islands. This is an effort to seek a resolution through common development by littoral states.
However, the challenge for China is that as we keep on exercising restraint, some other claimants have apparently no intention to shelve the disputes. On the contrary, they have shown a tendency to take matters into their own hands and force a unilateral solution onto China and the international community. China has no choice but to react.
What is even more worrying is that against the backdrop of ongoing changes in the overall environment in the Asia Pacific region, these problems and differences seem to be hyped up, and even used to justify certain policies or actions. This deserves our careful watch.
China wants to handle the disputes peacefully through direct negotiations between countries concerned. At the same time, we must protect China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. We remain committed to working with countries concerned to reach a farsighted and wise solution. China and Asean countries signed the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002.
Central to the DOC is a commitment by all parties to "to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability". Furthermore, the two sides are also engaged in ongoing discussions on the formulation of a Code of Conduct.
This shows that safeguarding stability in the region and managing disputes appropriately remains the mainstream thinking in our region. We sincerely hope that China and Asean countries will keep a cool head on this issue and exercise restraint through action, and that all parties will refrain from undermining the atmosphere for peace and stability in the region. Turning disputes into opportunities for cooperation serves the interest of all parties.
As for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, more than 80 per cent of China's trade goes through the sealanes there. Safety of the navigation routes is of utmost importance for China. We will do all we can to ensure peace in this part of the world.