Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Candid thoughts on South China Sea disputes

By Robert Lawrence Kuhn (China Daily) Updated: 2016-08-06 09:33

Candid thoughts on South China Sea disputes

File photo of South China Sea. [Photo/Xinhua]

Some foreign analysts call Beijing's rejection of the recent arbitral tribunal ruling in the South China Sea dispute "China's first international test" as an emerging power. Some foreign media wonder whether a resurgent China will uphold the international order. Will fears of a "China threat" now increase?

Underlying all these issues is what China calls its "core interests". What are China's core interests? Do they include the "dotted line" (often called the "Nine-Dash Line"), which defines China's claim of sovereignty in the South China Sea?

These matters are sufficiently serious to warrant a sophisticated understanding of China's position. What are China's claims and arguments? What will happen now?

To understand China's position and way of thinking, I sat down for a two-hour, in-depth discussion with General Peng Guangqian, a People's Liberation Army major general and military strategist; he is deputy secretary-general of China's National Security Forum and has been focusing on South China Sea issues.

The ground rules were simple: I would ask Peng the tough questions. Peng told me he would answer my questions directly and candidly, stressing that he would express his own personal ideas; he was not representing official positions of the Chinese government or the PLA. I was impressed by his knowledge and candor. To me, the issue is not so much who is right and who is wrong-human groups often disagree-but rather recognizing that only through open and honest communication can misunderstandings be minimized and inadvertent confrontations avoided.

Sovereignty and core interests

While the ruling did not determine sovereignty-because the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea cannot rule on sovereignty-it did seek to adjudicate territorial and economic zones from maritime features such as islands, rocks and reefs. China asserts this is a distinction without a difference, in that sovereignty is indeed the underlying issue and therefore the tribunal did not have jurisdiction, and China is not about to bargain away its sovereignty. Thus my first question to Peng.

"Why was the ruling so unfavorable to China, especially given that the tribunal said it was not addressing issues of sovereignty, which was not in its jurisdiction?"

"The Philippines and the arbitral tribunal played a trick," Peng said. "They disguised the territorial entitlement of the disputed islands and reefs as well as the maritime rights and interests as an interpretation of the UNCLOS ... The South China Sea issue is the first 'test' for China on the path of the great rejuvenation of the nation. We should adhere to our principles and express our solemn position to the international community."

"Is the South China Sea a 'core interest' of China's sovereignty on par with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang?" I asked.

"Let me give you a metaphor," Peng responded. "All human beings have 10 fingers. As a Chinese saying goes, the nerves of the fingertips are linked with the heart, which means every finger is closely bound up with one's whole life and we cannot cut off any finger. We attach equal importance to Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, Hainan ... Any part of China is an indispensable 'core interest' for China's survival and development. It's a reality that some of our islands and waters have been occupied by other countries and China's resources have been plundered. We have every confidence of recovering them. But we still advocate a peaceful settlement through negotiation and consultation. Before this issue is settled, we can shelve differences and seek joint development, which fully demonstrates our sincerity. But there is no doubt that the South China Sea is very much a part of China's 'core interests'."

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