One year on, South China Sea maintains fragile peace

By Li Kaisheng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/6 19:18:39

Today, few people talk about the so-called South China Sea arbitration ruling issued on July 7, 2016, not because people are forgetful, but because the so-called arbitration ruling turned out to be moot. Without the ruling, the South China Sea situation can be managed very well.

The arbitration initiated by former Philippine president Benigno Aquino III worsened the relationship between China and the Philippines and messed up the situation in the South China Sea. It was wise for Aquino III's successor Rodrigo Duterte to bypass this quicksand.

Over the past year, peace in the South China Sea has basically been maintained. Under the hard work of the relevant parties, institutionalized efforts to control the South China Sea situation have also made a great breakthrough. The Code of Conduct for the South China Sea framework was passed by China and ASEAN countries on May 18. Peace has been maintained since the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was reached. Under the new Code of Conduct, which is more detailed and more binding, it is believed that the South China Sea may usher in an even more lasting peace.

More importantly, the current situation in the South China Sea is not a "hegemonic peace" imposed by one country with its own superiority. China is willing to promote peace and cooperation with an attitude of equality and achieve long-term peace and stability in the South China Sea in an institutionalized way.

Looking back at the situation in the South China Sea in the past year, it is not difficult to draw the following lessons:

First, the South China Sea dispute should not "hijack" the development of relations between the relevant countries. Developing bilateral relations with strategic win-win cooperation is more conducive to maintaining peace.

For example, after Duterte took office, he realized that there was a huge space for mutual benefit with China, so he signaled his willingness to improve bilateral relations. As a result, China and the Philippines made proper arrangements regarding maritime disputes, not only taking control of the situation but also rapidly engaging in mutually beneficial cooperation.

Second, regional disputes should be independently resolved by regional countries. The US and Japan have been trying to intervene in the South China Sea dispute with so-called freedom of navigation exercises, but the fact is that freedom of navigation there has never been hindered.

The real concern of the two external powers is to disperse China's strategic attention through making trouble in the South China Sea, in order to get an advantage in their game with China. But they always make their allies or partners pay the cost by pushing them into the front line against China.

Third, treating each other as equals is key. It is undeniable that China has an overwhelming advantage over many other claimants of the South China Sea. China has pursued a policy of shelving disputes and joint development, but when other countries challenge China's interests, China has used its own strength to launch a counter attack.

In the South China Sea dispute, there is a lesson obtained from decades of struggle: big powers shouldn't use their advantages to bully smaller nations, and small countries shouldn't overcome big powers by banding together or forming alliances with countries outside the region. At present, the situation in the South China Sea is still fragile. The key lies in the fact that these lessons have not taken root in relevant countries. Some countries like Vietnam and the Philippines still have doubts about developing friendly relations with China, always ready to play the "South China Sea" card. The re-established diplomatic engagement between China and other South China Sea claimants and ASEAN has not become stable yet. How to consult in an equal and friendly way over complex issues still needs to be resolved.

Foreign forces are still strongly pushing to intervene in the South China Sea issue. Japan has been competing with China for influence in this region, even trying to incite relevant countries to enhance maritime forces against China. The US has re-started its so-called freedom of navigation missions, intentionally hyping up the South China Sea issue.

Regional countries should keep calm, and always be aware that the fundamental interests of the region are peace and stability, and negotiations held on an equal footing are the fundamental way to manage disputes.

Never chime in with external forces. Don't make the situation complicated or expand the dispute. Fix the situation in the South China Sea on the track of peace and stability. At the same time, we should reach agreement on the South China Sea Code of Conduct as soon as possible, making it a keystone to maintaining peace in the South China Sea.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.


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