China is a country with the biggest number of neighbors, neighbors on the continent and neighbors across narrow sea strips. On the continent, China has 20 odd neighbors. China has resolved all border issues with them. Only two sections of the border between China and India are pending. But the two countries have agreed to resolve them on the basis of mutual understanding and mutual accommodation. And before their final resolution, a border management mechanism has been put in place. As recently at last week, Indian Defense Minister stated that that mechanism has been functioning satisfactorily. Satisfactorily, I say, despite occasional media clamors. So one can fairly say all is quiet on the continent.
The same can not be said however with regard to China and its neighbors across the narrow strips of the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Because of historical reasons, China was the first country to discover, name and utilize the four island groups in the South China Sea. The new government (PRC) inherited this as well as the nine dotted lines which show Chinese people's activities over the centuries.
Before the end of 1960s and early 1970s, no countries questioned that history or laid claim on these islands.
All that changed as a result of two events.
A report was released in 1968 by a UN Organ, claiming that the South China Sea is rich in oil and gas reserves. That happened at a time when China was busily engaged in what is called Cultural Revolution, while some of the countries in the region had begun initial stage of industrialization and felt the need for oil and gas.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted, which for the first time established the exclusive economic zone. Article 56 of the Convention states that "In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting the natural resources", which gives the impression, sometimes false, that the coastal state owns the area.
I say false because the same Convention in Article 121 provides that an island, whether habitable or not, can have territorial water and contiguous zone. What if that island belongs to another country other than the coastal country? Here lies the seed of contradiction and confrontation.
As a result of the Convention, now between China and Korea in the Yellow Sea and between China and Japan in the East China Sea, a new problem arises. That is, how to divide up the sea strips between them, which is less than 400 nautical miles. Moreover, because of the Convention, some countries began to use geographical location and geographical proximity as a basis for laying claims to the Nansha Islands and taking actions to actually control some of them. I have a story to tell. At one stage, the then Philippine President visited China and met with Deng Xiaoping, raising the question of some of the islands and saying that they are so close to the Philippines, why can’t the Philippines hold on to them? What did Deng reply? He said for that matter, the Philippines is not too far from China. Of course, Deng did not mean that the Philippines is part of China, what he meant is that geographical proximity should not be used as the basis for the resolution of sovereignty over islands.
The simmering situation came to a head in the new century, particularly over recent years. I'd like to give three reasons for that development.
One: We are now living in a globalized world in an information age. These two factors have changed everybody's life, as well as relations between states. They have quickened the pace of changes in the pattern of international relations. So, now we say the world today is undergoing major transformation and adjustment. They have given rise to populism and nationalism. There are many ways to examine how these factors affect the issue under purview.
As we are today in the press club, I'd like to mention one, i.e. the greater role of media, not just written and visual media, but more so the Internet. Moreover, the interaction between the media, politicians and the general public is far greater than before. The result of the interaction often leads to escalation of tension, whether domestic or between states. The fact that Asia is now very much the focus of world attention tends to further enlarge any dispute in the region.
Two: China’s fast rise and our neighbors’ reaction to that. While most of China's neighbors regard China's rise as an opportunity, opportunity for close cooperation to achieve mutual development and prosperity, some of our neighbors regard it as a mixed blessing, opportunity in economic terms and challenge in security terms. As China is in the process of rising and it would take years for China to be really strong economically and militarily, some countries that have territorial disputes with China regard these years as their last opportunity to take hold of what they believe should belong to them.
Three: US strategic readjustment and new tactics adopted to achieve that purpose. Since coming to power, the Obama Government has initiated a major strategic readjustment with Asia-pacific as its new focus. That sends a signal to countries in the region. Moreover, in trying to achieve that strategic goal, the US Government has resorted to the so-called smart power in addition to hard power as employed during the Bush Administration.
What is smart power?
As I see it, it is the combination of two mutually-reinforcing means: making use of outside force and exploiting contradiction among regional countries. As a security alliance, Japan is now being used by the US as its strategic point in coming back to Asia. The US is urging Japan to play a greater role in the region which suits the purpose of the right-wing in Japan more than perfectly.
At the same time, the US is exploiting disputes between China and some other neighbors. Joint military exercise with the Philippines is a case in point. Now it is no longer a secret that it is in US interest for countries in this region to quarrel with china but not to fight with China. All the US wants now is to compete with China in influence in the region as reportedly stated by Hillary Clinton. Clearly, intervening in the South China Sea is one of the important means to expand US influence and restrain China's influence in the region.
But are there guarantees that Japan and the Philippines will not misjudge US intentions and carry their quarrel with China too far and draw US and China into a confrontation? The danger is apparent and China needs to be alert to that.
Now a few words about the Diaoyu Islands and Sino-Japanese relations. The case of the Diaoyu Islands is different from those islands in the South China Sea, both in nature and in perception. The island group was occupied by Japan during the first Sino-Japanese war. According to the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation, as a defeated country, Japan should have given up the islands and returned them to China. Therefore, Chinese People regard the dispute as an issue over history as whether Japan has really repented and is ready to shoulder its war responsibilities. Therefore, there are differences in popular reaction of the Chinese people with regard to the Diaoyu Islands incident as compared with the Huangyan Island incident with the Philippines.
Another point of difference is the role of the US. The US, knowing full well the historical background of the island group, twice lumped the administrative rights over the island group with Okinawa and handed it over to Japan while at the same time stating that US takes no position whatsoever on the sovereignty over the island group. Is that practical? Now, sensible person both in China and Japan seeing the island group as a "time bomb" planted by the US between China and Japan. That time bomb is now exploding or about to explode. That is because of the following factors:
Since the Plaza Agreement in 1985 thwarted Japan's fast economic growth and expansion, Japanese economy has been in stagnation for decades. Moreover, the Japanese society has lost confidence and direction. It greeted China's rise with suspicion and dismay. The extreme-right in Japan took advantage of the resentment of the Japanese people to reorient the country to the right. Tokyo governor’s action is cleverly calculated and has achieved that purpose with political figures in Japan, not opposing him but vying with one another to show who is more to the right. In my personal view, the provocation over the Diaoyu Islands is unnecessary and unwise as the island group has been under Japanese practical control any way. It only served the internal purpose to move the Japanese society further to the right.
What is more, unlike other democracies in America and Europe, Japan does not have a fully developed two Party system, one conservative, one liberal. In Japan, all major political parties are conservative, all prominent political figures are conservative. Again unlike political life in Europe and America, Japanese society does not entertain what people call "the pendulum effect". (The pendulum swings right and left, but eventually swings to the middle.) In Japan, history shows the pendulum tends to move in one direction, further and further up to the point of no return as there is no strong restraining political force in Japan.
Last but not least, the US role again. Can one rely on the US to restrain Japan? The answer is less certain now. While Japan's foreign minister did not succeed in his European visit, the Japanese have succeeded in having the US to state repeatedly that the US obligation to Japan extends to the island groups. It also got the US to conduct a joint military exercise to take islands. In this strategic rebalance, the US needs Japan just as Japan needs the US. Noda's speech to the military and Shinzo Abe's recent statement on the role of Japan's military show that it is not totally impossible for Japan to resort to military means to achieve its purpose and even to go militaristic. Countries in the region need to be prepared.
Now, what are China’s policy options?
As I am a retired former diplomat, it is no longer my responsibility to explain government policies. My interest is to explore the contour of the framework of policy options open to China. I see two major determinants: protection of sovereignty and preservation of stability, both at home and abroad. The first is the responsibility of any national state. The latter is the prerequisite of development. China’s option must be something less than perfect. It has to be a right balance between these two concerns. That explains why so far the Chinese Government has not taken any proactive action to initiate changes in the status quo wherever the disputes lie. China only responds to what it sees as provocation. The only question one can raise is whether the response is commensurate. Here the difficulty is that a response on the part of China is often seen as inadequate or even soft internally while regarded as tough and even excessive externally.
In the larger interest of good neighborliness and prosperity, the Chinese Government has adhered to the following principles which I believe constitute lines China will not cross.
China does not seek to provoke incidents and will not be the one to do so first.
China recognizes territorial disputes where overlapping sovereignty claims exist.
China seeks to shelve disputes if they could not be resolved now.
China advocates joint exploitation on and around disputed islands.
China advocates peaceful resolution of disputes by parties directly concerned with the disputes.
China does not seek to recover all lost territories but is ready for give and take over the negotiating table.
But I doubt if China will tolerate any new encroachment on China's sovereign rights or actions to reinforce existing encroachments.
With regard to the issue of the Diaoyu Islands, I’d like to make the following points:
1. China has all along adhered to the understanding reached at the time of normalization between Deng Xiaoping and the then Japanese leaders. However, since Japan no longer recognizes the understanding and now the status quo over the Islands has been broken by the Japanese side, I think China does not have to respect the status quo any more. In the current circumstances, it is imperative for the parties to put in place a mechanism to avoid accidental clash between patrol vessels of the two countries.
2. Japan has to acknowledge the existence of overlapping claims. Japan should come to the negotiating table with China. That is in the interest not only of China but of normal Sino-Japanese relations and above all, the stability and prosperity of the region. That should be the policy objective of China if I were to advise the Government.
3. If the US really intends to play a neutral and constructive role, it should urge the parties to the dispute to the negotiating table and resolve the difference by peaceful means.
Then, Ambassador Chen Jian takes several questions.
Q: Assuming there will be a change of president of the US next week, if you were in a position to advise the new President on how he should approach China and this region, what would you say to him?
A：My hope is that after the election, the two countries will continue what was initiated between the two leaders to seek to build a new relationship between what we call an established power and a rising power. Where to start? The best area to start is the Asia-Pacific region. The leaders of the two countries have already acknowledged that China welcomes the US to play a constructive role in the region, and the US respect China’s reasonable interest in the region. It is necessary now to put these pronouncements into practice, to work out problems peacefully and constructively for the common good of the countries in the region. On the question of the Diaoyu Islands, the first priority for the US is to move back from its position which is in favor of Japan to urge Japan to the negotiating table with China. China is ready to negotiate, but Japan has to accept the reality and come to the negotiating table. I think the first priority at the negotiating table is to establish a mechanism to avoid accidental clash.
Q: With the change of power expected in China in the coming months, those who would like to see proactive measures by China, what sort of things are they thinking about, particularly in terms of the US power in the region?
A: I don’t expect major changes in China’s foreign policy. I think it will be a smooth change, and major tenets of the foreign policy will remain very much the same. As I see it, China will not take provocative actions with regard to disputes, we will only react. But our reaction will be sufficient to ensure our sovereignty rights are safeguarded.
Q: With regard to risk of clashes at sea, how high do you think the risk is? Do you see Chinese naval vessels getting into the area?
A: In the case of the Huangyan Island and Diaoyu Islands, all Chinese patrol ships are administrative vessels, not warships. I think this will continue if the situation does not escalate.
Q: Is there a contingency plan if there is a collision of Japanese and Chinese vessels? What happens then?
A: Simply that is not in my mind.
Q: Some historical documents said that the Diaoyu Islands is part of Taiwan’s Yilan County. How do you think of that?
A: Traditionally, the Diaoyu Islands is administered by Taiwan Province and viewed as part of Taiwan. Since Taiwan is part of China, so the Islands is part of China.
Q: Do you see any constructive role of ASEAN in resolution of the maritime disputes between China and ASEAN countries?
A: ASEAN can play a role to draw the guidelines for the situation in the region, but it is not ASEAN’s business to negotiate territorial disputes between China and some of ASEAN countries. Can you imagine the EU and Latin American organizations negotiate the sovereign disputes over the Falklands? Certainly not. The same applies to ASEAN.
Q: Will the disputes between China and Japan affect bilateral economic relations?
A：Yes, it’s going to be an issue since the dispute cannot be easily resolved and has already impaired bilateral economic relations. So, it is in the interest of the two countries to find a way to come to the negotiating table and talk about the issue. I also hope that the US will put some restraining influence on Japan so that Japan will not continue to resist any negotiation with China.
Q: India and China fought a war several years ago, and some scholars are still debating which one is the aggressor. You said that there are some progress in the talks between the two countries, do you think in our lifetime, is there any possibility to solve all our problems?
A: The two countries have agreed to start a new relationship despite the existing territorial disputes over part of the border. So, let what has already passed to be the past, let us turn over a new page and begin cooperation. This also applies to China and Japan. Japan once invaded China and created massive atrocities to China, but China will not take revenge. History is history, we should move ahead for the common good of our people.
Q: Do you think one day China will aspire to lead the world and to be an example of the world?
A: As far as I see, it is not in the pictures. There are many reasons. One is that the Chinese people are greatly different from the US people. The US is an immigrant country, with people coming to the US with a strong sense of mission, not only to their own country, but to the rest of world. Just as missionaries sent by the US to all over the world, to preach what they believe to be the best. The Chinese people don’t have that kind sense of mission. Our major religion is Buddhism. Buddhism does not preach, does not try to convert people. What we want from the rest of the world is respect. The Chinese people’s sense of being respected is very strong, but their sense of leading the rest of world is very weak. It’s just not in our blood.