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Some countries may try to make use of the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue, starting on Friday, to once again sensationalize the territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and some of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Some Western media outlets are predicting China will be "besieged" at the annual security forum in Singapore, which is organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and attended by the defense ministers and military chiefs of 28 Asia-Pacific states.
But will the South China Sea disputes necessarily lead to worsening relations between China and neighboring countries, and have the disputes really become a strategic trap on China's road to a peaceful rise as some like to claim?
The answer is no.
Take China and the Philippines' month-long standoff at Huangyan Island for example. The Philippines has not only illegally occupied eight islands and isles belonging to China, it has also posed a further challenge by encouraging its fishermen to fish in the waters around Huangyan Island. It has initiated the dispute with China in an attempt to trick China into recognizing its occupation of the islands. Such efforts, of course, have failed.
The Philippines has tried to claim sovereignty over Huangyan Island because it is within the country's exclusive economic zone. However, such a claim doesn't hold water as China's sovereignty over the island was established long before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 made stipulations about exclusive economic zones.
Huangyan Island is a natural extension of China's continental shelf and its rights over the island can be traced back to 1279 when Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing first surveyed Huangyan Island; and Chinese fishermen have been known to fish in this area since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The Philippines has tried to win the sympathy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by proclaiming China a threat, but ASEAN members have seen for themselves how much restraint China has shown during the standoff and how it has continually held out an olive branch to the Philippines.
Countries in the region are well aware that the Philippines has repeatedly ignored China's peaceful overtures and tried to drag the United States into the dispute against China. But the US has wisely decided it doesn't wish to get drawn into an unnecessary conflict with China.
Any concerns that by defending its territory China might damage its relations with ASEAN are unfounded. China has long maintained harmonious relations with ASEAN and China welcomes joint exploitation of resources while shelving disputes as long as ASEAN countries abide by the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,
A second problem raised by the trap theory is: Any military action China takes will prove it has ambitions for hegemony in the region and will scare its neighbors, destroying the friendly environment conducive to a peaceful rise.
It's true that China will be especially cautious about using military force to solve the disputes.
But using military force to defend its territory does not mean it is abandoning its peaceful rise or pursuing hegemony in the region, defense is not offensive.
China sticks to a defensive national defense policy, but it will firmly defend its sovereignty and territory to the best of its ability, just as any other country would.
The South China Sea disputes are a complicated structural problem, as well as a strategic problem. Some countries are trying to erode China's sovereignty by occupying some of its territory in the South China Sea. If China does not act firmly, these occupations might become permanent.
China urges the countries concerned to honor their promises and abide by the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The world is fully aware that it is China's self-restraint and patience that has prevented the Huangyan Island standoff from escalating into military conflict. But countries in the region should also recognize that while China follows a peaceful development path it will always defend its national interests.
The authors are researchers in political studies at Guangdong Ocean University.
(China Daily 06/01/2012 page9)