Chinese foreign minister blunt on misperceptions about disputed sea
When Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Washington last week, US news media were reporting on Chinese military facilities spotted on some islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The news was leaked by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Tensions over the South China Sea have been a hot topic at CSIS events in past years, yet Chinese perspectives are often overlooked or even distorted in the discussions. So when Wang chose to speak at CSIS on Feb 25, it came as a surprise to some, but not so much to others.
Indeed, it might be the first time for many in the CSIS audience to hear China’s views on various hot-button issues, such as the South China Sea.
A career diplomat, Wang did not shy away from any question, answering all, especially one on the South China Sea, in great detail.
According to Wang, there are Chinese defense facilities on those islands and reefs. But he suggests that CSIS also uses its strong intelligence and satellite imaging capability to show the military facilities on islands and reefs of other countries in the region.
While China has already stopped its land reclamation there, some other countries, which started land reclamation much earlier than China did, are continuing their reclamation activities even today, a fact hardly covered by US news media.
The islands and reefs occupied by some of China’s neighbors are highly militarized with artillery, amphibious tanks, missiles and gun helicopters in addition to airstrips.
Surrounded by these islands militarized by neighboring countries, it’s only natural for China to install necessary defense facilities, according to Wang.
As Wang said repeatedly lately, people should pay more attention to the civilian-purpose facilities China has built and will build in the South China Sea to ensure safety and freedom of navigation. Those include plans for meteorological stations, emergency harbors, maritime observation and research facilities and other types of civilian uses that will benefit all nations.
Asked whether the arbitration at The Hague sought by the Philippines will hurt China’s reputation, Wang explained that the truth is exactly the opposite. It is the Philippines that has violated global, regional and bilateral rules and norms.
According to Wang, when China signed the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 10 years ago, it made the Article 298 declaration not to accept mandatory arbitration, a declaration that was also made by some 30 signatory nations including Britain, France and Russia. The US, of course, has not yet ratified the UNCLOS even to this day.
To stick to the declaration, Wang said China won’t accept any mandatory arbitration, whether it’s in China’s favor or not.
At the same time, bilateral agreements between China and the Philippines stipulate that disputes should be resolved peacefully and through dialogue. Yet the Philippines has rejected any negotiations with China.
According to Wang, international practice also requires the Philippines to secure China’s consent for arbitration before initiating it, yet the Philippines has not done that at all.
The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by the Philippines, China and several other nations would require countries directly involved to solve their disputes through negotiations.
Rules also say that a country cannot seek arbitration before exhausting bilateral avenues of discussion. Yet the reality is that negotiations over a dozen issues brought up by the Philippines to The Hague have never started.
“So we cannot but question the credibility of that country,” Wang said, referring to the Philippines.
He was puzzled that the Philippines still pursues the case in The Hague knowing it’s a mission impossible. “So we cannot but question maybe they have some other motives,” said Wang, who described the Philippines’ action as political provocation.
“That’s the only way we can make sense of it,” he told the audience.
While US media often describe China as a bully, Wang told the audience that last year alone, Philippine military planes flew through China’s airspace over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea more than 50 times. “Is that a big country bullying a small one?” he asked.
“Maybe they are trying to remind us of something,” he said. Unlike the Philippines and some other countries, China did not have airstrips on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea until last year.
Though disappointed with the current Philippine leadership, Wang said China’s door for negotiation was always open. “We can start tomorrow,” he said.
To Wang, China and the Philippines are two neighbors with a strong bond between their peoples and complementary economies. They should engage in mutually beneficial cooperation rather than confrontation.
“So we advise the Philippines not to go down this cul-de-sac,” he said.
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