China must act peacefully despite tough talk

China must act peacefully despite tough talk

A Chinese Coast Guard ship attempts to block a Philippine government vessel as the latter tries to enter Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea in this March, 2014, incident. (AP photo)
A Chinese Coast Guard ship attempts to block a Philippine government vessel as the latter tries to enter Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea in this March, 2014, incident. (AP photo)

In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping told foreign ministers from 26 countries at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia in the Chinese capital that Beijing is committed in maintaining peace and stability in the region and pledged to work with Southeast Asia in turning the South China Sea into a "sea of peace, friendship and cooperation".

But less than a week before the July 12 Permanent Court of Arbitration's (PCA) ruling on a maritime dispute with the Philippines, the Chinese navy carried out "combat exercises" with "live missiles" between the Paracels and the southern Chinese island of Hainan, according to the People's Liberation Army Daily, the Chinese military's mouthpiece.

Images of fighter jets and ships firing missiles, helicopters taking off and submarines surfacing were shown on state television as the PLA Daily said the drill "focused on air control operations, sea battles and anti-submarine warfare".

Then a day after the PCA ruled that China had no legal basis for its expansive claim to the South China Sea, Beijing issued a policy paper saying the islands in the South China Sea are "China's inherent territory".

Nopporn Wong-Anan is deputy editor, Bangkok Post.

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The white paper also attacks Manila for breaching a bilateral agreement to settle the disputes through negotiations, accusing the Philippines of "distorting facts and concocting a pack of lies" leading to the legal proceedings.

Then came another military drill. Hainan's maritime body announced this week the four-day closing of an area southeast of the island ending today for "routine exercises" of live firing in the area.

While reiterating its claims over the disputed sea with naval and air patrols, Beijing also launched an information operation with the help of its state media outlets to send its messages across Southeast Asia.

I was one of some 20 journalists from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia who joined a press junket in Singapore on Tuesday, while another 20 or so reporters from Chinese state media flew in from Hong Kong and Southeast Asian capitals to cover the "Think Tank Seminar on South China Sea and Regional Cooperation and Development".

Ten of the 25 panellists were Chinese scholars; the remaining were scholars from Cambodia, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, many of whom questioned the PCA ruling. The one-day conference co-hosted by Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University became a venue to attack the US, Japan, the Philippines and the PCA.

Calling the PCA a "makeshift tribunal" and its rulings a "political farce" that was funded by Manila, Chinese scholars attacked Washington for sabotaging Beijing's strengthening ties with Southeast Asia and reiterated their stance that maritime disputes must be resolved bilaterally, not multilaterally.

As China expects local media within Southeast Asia to make room or airtime for its side of the story amid claims that dozens of countries back its stance on the South China Sea, Chinese state media have been criticised for misreporting some of the Asian leaders' statements.

Vietnam this week described a Xinhua report that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc regarded China's denial of the PCA's rulings as "untruthful".

During a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Mongolia last week, Mr Phuc told Mr Li that he welcomed the PCA's decision and did not endorse Beijing's stance regarding the tribunal's award, the communist government said.

But Xinhua last Thursday misquoted Mr Phuc as saying "Vietnam respects China's stance on the arbitration" and that "Vietnam stands ready to push forward the mechanism of bilateral maritime negotiations and properly manage differences with China, so as to contribute to regional peace and stability".

Also China's Foreign Ministry issued a statement said on July 9 that Sri Lanka "understands and applauds" China's stance on the waterway, citing a meeting between the countries' foreign ministers in Colombo.

But Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a Bloomberg interview in Singapore on Sunday that use of "applauds" was not correct.

Such instances have apparently demonstrated that Beijing has not acted up to its pledge of making the strategic sea lanes "a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation".

Although Beijing has unilaterally reiterated its historic right in South China Sea, Beijing must also respect the UNCLOS, to which it is a signatory.

Days after the tribunal award, China's coastguard still prevents Filipino boats from fishing around the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal, 124 nautical miles northwest of the Philippines mainland.

Military officials and fishermen in the northwest province of Pangasinan said last Friday Chinese coastguard vessels remained in place at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, one of several main reasons why Manila brought Beijing to The Hague, and were still preventing fishermen from entering the shoal's lagoon, according to Reuters.

If the Chinese really mean what they say about peace in the region, they should stick to clauses in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which was adopted by the foreign ministers of Asean and China at the 8th Asean Summit in Phnom Penh in 2002 and make a meaningful contribution to translating the declaration into a more concrete commitment.

As Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan rightly said last month, Asean "cannot subscribe to the principle that might is right".


Nopporn Wong-Anan is deputy editor, Bangkok Post.

Nopporn Wong-Anan

Deputy editor

Nopporn Wong-Anan is deputy editor, Bangkok Post.

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