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On the maritime row: Reassuring noises

Publication Date : 07-09-2012


The Chinese government has reiterated its commitment to a code of conduct that will resolve tensions and guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea—that hub of major shipping lanes and suspected vast oil and gas reserves known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea, in Vietnam as the East Sea, and in China simply as the South Sea.

“Freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea is assured,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said at a joint press briefing he held with visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the other day.

"For China and our neighbouring countries, the South China Sea is really a lifeline for exchanges, trade and commerce. There is no issue currently in this area, nor will there ever be issues in that area in the future.”

Would that this were true. But in fact China and its neighbouring countries hold competing claims to parts of the sea; in China’s case, it is claiming the entire South China Sea itself. It is for this reason that we welcome Yang’s assurances—even though the Philippines and, we suppose, every other affected country in the area have reason to be sceptical. We can at least hold Beijing to account according to its own pronouncements.

But Yang’s statements need to be weighed according to certain political realities in China.

Beijing is currently engaged in a once-a-decade leadership transition, at the exact time when the Chinese Communist Party is facing two serious challenges to its continuing legitimacy: The country’s vaunted economy shows all signs of an unusual slowing down, putting the Party’s relatively new ideology of economic nationalism under unaccustomed stress. And the Party itself is battling not only seemingly perennial corruption charges but even (in the wake of the whole Bo Xilai controversy) rumors of factional rivalry.

The Chinese foreign ministry and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are also engaged in an intriguingly public contest for the right to dictate policy on the South China Sea. We need only recall that it was a high PLA official who gave a startling response to Clinton’s 2010 Singapore speech that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was in the American national interest; he asserted that China had “indisputable sovereignty” not only over the disputed islands in the area but over the entire sea.

Last but certainly not least, the circumstances preceding the joint news conference with Clinton give us pause. Before her visit, China’s compliant media directed unusual criticism at Clinton; we also understand that while she has met with President Hu Jintao, Hu’s likely successor as president and Party chief, Xi Jinping, abruptly cancelled their scheduled meeting. Whether this is a rebuke to Clinton’s assertive call to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to present a unified stand in the South China Sea issue, or merely an attempt to shield the next generation of Chinese leaders from the need to make premature commitments, we find the sequence of events very strange, indeed.

Against this background, it is difficult to accept Yang’s statements at full value. Indeed, he made a point of reiterating the expanded and expansive Chinese position at the briefing: “Regarding the South China Sea, the position of the Chinese government has been consistent and clear cut. China has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters”—a sweeping stance that the Philippines and Vietnam have already criticised.

But bilateral approaches to dispute resolution, which China favours, can only take the Philippines and Vietnam so far; the hard reality is, the somewhat porous Asean bloc itself must present a united stand, and it is only possible to do so if the United States, China’s rival Pacific power, is a factor in the diplomatic equation.

So now we have, yet again, Beijing’s recommitment to the proposed code of conduct, a decade after it made its original pledge. But political realities mean that Asean will need to wait until well into the next year, at the earliest, before promise finally becomes reality.


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