Wang Lutong: China is aiming to keep peace

To maintain stability in South China Sea, outside interests must have the same goal.
Seen from a military plane, China's alleged ongoing reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo / AP
Seen from a military plane, China's alleged ongoing reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo / AP

The South China Sea islands and reefs have been Chinese territory since ancient times. China was the first country to discover and name the islands in the South China Sea, and also was the first to exercise administrative jurisdiction and develop those islands.

Over the last 40 years, disputes over the South China Sea have been localised and controlled. Tensions in this region have only been aggravated since 2009, and particularly post 2012.

The arbitration case initiated by the Philippines is an extreme, isolated case. Analysing the South China Sea issue in the context of Southeast Asia's development serves a clear picture of the underlying catalyst for this dispute.

From the Age of Discovery to the colonial period, and from World War II to the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asian countries have never experienced real peace. Before World War II, virtually the entire Southeast Asia region was colonised by Western powers. During WWII, the region was occupied by Japan.

Most Southeast Asia countries did not gain independence until the end of World War II. In the 20 years following independence, however, those countries were heavily affected by the Cold War.

With the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asia ushered in a valuable period of stability and prosperity. The relationship between China, Southeast Asia and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) then entered a 'Golden 20-Year Period'. China has become the largest trading partner of ASEAN and most of its nations. ASEAN is China's third largest trading partner after the European Union and the United States, with bilateral trade worth up to US$400 billion ($568 billion).

Anyone with a rational mind could draw the conclusion that China has no reason to damage this relationship.

These development achievements may have invited jealousy. The US launched its "Asia-Pacific rebalancing" in 2010 and the six years afterwards have seen profound impacts in Southeast Asia.

As far as the South China Sea issue is concerned, the "Asia-Pacific rebalancing" emboldened certain ASEAN countries, a typical example being the Philippines' provocation of the Huangyan Dao Incident in 2012 and its unilateral initiation of the South China Sea arbitration in January 2013.

The South China Sea arbitration instigated by the Philippines is political provocation under the cloak of law, designed to legalise illegal claims and deny China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea. China will neither accept nor participate in the arbitration.

The so-called issue of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is a pseudo-proposition. There are more than 100,000 ships from countries around the world sailing safely and freely through the South China Sea every year. As the largest country of the region, and also the world's largest goods trading nation, China's survival is highly dependent on the South China Sea, which is China's most critical trade channel.

The peace and stability of the South China Sea and the freedom of navigation and flight in the region is critical to China. China attaches greater importance to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea than any other country, including the United States.

China started construction on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea at the end of 2013, the timing of which indicates that China was forced to react, given the changes in regional situation. Any accusations regarding China's construction creating tensions puts the cart before the horse.

China is the last country to undertake construction in the South China Sea, and construction was carried out on its own islands and reefs. The scale and speed of China's reef construction matched the international responsibilities and obligations assumed by China as a major power.

The Philippines and other claimant countries commenced construction on illegally occupied Chinese islands and reefs well before China, and such construction has never ceased. The accusation that China provoked tensions in the South China Sea is caused by a lack of understanding of China's actions, or is a move to deliberately discredit China.

China firmly supports the existing international system. Through consultations and negotiations, China has solved border issues with twelve land neighbours, accounting for 90 per cent of China's total land borders. This exemplifies China's respect for and compliance with international laws. China does not accept that the arbitration case instigated by the Philippines is an exercise of rights under international law.

China is willing to continue to adhere to the 'dual-track approach' reached with relevant countries in this region, that is, relevant disputes should be resolved by sovereign states directly concerned through consultation and negotiations, and the peace and stability of the South China Sea should be jointly maintained by China and ASEAN countries.

Countries in this region have reached the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Provided all parties strictly adhere to the DOC, regional peace and stability can be maintained.

Of course, this also requires countries outside of the region, including the United States, to work in the same direction as China and ASEAN nations, rather than the opposite.

- NZ Herald

Wang Lutong is China's ambassador to New Zealand.

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