Cooler heads should prevail in South China Sea dispute

Updated: 2011-07-22 15:08

By Zhong Sheng (

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The South China Sea issue became a top agenda item for the 44th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting that opened in Bali, Indonesia on July 19. Whether the ASEAN countries can introduce a legally binding code of conduct for the sea has attracted much attention from reporters.

Obviously, the legally binding code of conduct is targeted against China. The United States, the world's only superpower, has long been actively interfering in the South China Sea territorial dispute. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced publicly at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting last year that the South China Sea dispute was related to U.S. national interests. The dispute has been heating up since then.

Right before the 44th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Bali, several U.S. Navy ships arrived in the waters of Vietnam for joint military exercises. There is every reason to be concerned about what remarks Clinton will make at the ministerial meeting this year.

China disapproves of referring bilateral disputes to multilateral forums and is strongly opposed to the intervention of an outside power in the South China Sea dispute. This does not mean that China has done something wrong or feels guilty. China just does not want to complicate the issue.

Admittedly, there are maritime territorial disputes between a few ASEAN countries and China. Every inch of a country's territory is sacred — be it a small or big country. Territorial disputes are not unsolvable, no matter how sensitive they are. Such disputes used to be solved with violence, but times have changed. France and Germany successfully settled their long-standing feuds through promoting the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community about 60 years ago, which boosted the integration of European countries. Asian countries have the wisdom and ability to maintain stability in the South China Sea, and to make it "a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation" by completely solving the territorial dispute as soon as possible.

Regarding the South China Sea issue, the standpoint of China is consistent and clear. In as early as 1980s, China already brought forward the proposal of "putting aside the dispute and developing it jointly." China says so and China does so.

The standpoint of negotiating it peacefully and solving it jointly comes from China's outlook on the times. In the current times, peace and development are the two mainstreams, and based on this judgment, Deng Xiaoping started the great cause of reform and opening-up. Tightly seizing the trend of the times, China is walking on a road of peaceful development firmly and unshakably. The great achievement in economic development has not only enhanced China's comprehensive national strength, but also made China more broad-minded and more patient in dealing with complicated issues. The foreign policy of "fostering a harmonious, secure and prosperous neighborly environment" has become an important part of China's diplomatic thoughts.

The "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea" reached in 2002 is a good document because China and ASEAN countries have all strongly realized that a peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment is needed in order to solve the South China Sea issue. Good conditions need to be created in order to settle the differences and disputes.

In the document, all the parties have clearly undertaken to establish channels of trust based on equality and mutual respect. For the past 10 years, China has actively promoted the implementation of the declaration and the subsequent courses and always tried to make practical progresses as soon as possible. Unfortunately, a few countries have not cooperated with China.

Some ASEAN countries made efforts to push forward a "binding behavior criterion of the South China Sea" before the Bali conference and even announced that they hope to solve this problem through the cooperation of countries such as the United States and Japan. Regardless of the original intention of this proposal, is there any realistic foundation for such a strong thrust under the current atmosphere of the South China Sea issue? As certain countries attempt to promote the internationalization of the South China Sea issue to put pressure on China, China has reasons to raise the following questions: what is the true intention of the so-called "binding behavior criterion?" Are they trying to act freely while binding China? What if the immature "behavior criterion" fails to produce the "force of constraint" but make the situation more complex?

The ASEAN now indeed needs to further promote the integration of many aspects, such as internal politics, economy and diplomacy. However, pinning their hope on the internationalization of the South China Sea issue to strengthen the internal integration and promote international influence is obviously not practical. This will influence the relationship between ASEAN countries and even harm the interests of countries in this region.

The dispute in the South China Sea does not correspond with the fundamental interests of China and the ASEAN. Both sides will certainly more fully understand the meaning of peace negotiations as long as they consider the South China Sea issue in the height of the further common development and prosperity in this region. What they need now is to cool down the dispute and fully promote the development of the relationship between China and the ASEAN to create a good environment for the final settlement of the South China Sea issue.

China believes China and neighboring countries have the ability and wisdom to properly deal with the South China Sea issue.