Editor's note: On 19 May 2016, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin met with a US media delegation that consisted of Jonathan Broder, senior writer for Newsweek, Cristi Kempf, Associate Managing Editor of Chicago Tribune, and Jon Healey, Deputy Editorial Page Editor of Los Angeles Times.
Vice Minister Liu Zhenmin spoke about the history of the South China Sea issue and the background of the Philippines' unilateral initiation of the South China Sea arbitration. He also answered questions about the US "Freedom of Navigation Program" in the South China Sea, how China would respond to the arbitration "award", and how the South China Sea issue would affect the China-US relations.
The edited record of the conversation is as follows:
Liu Zhenmin: First of all, on behalf of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I welcome you, friends from the US media, and I wish to thank the China-United States Exchange Foundation for arranging this meeting. This afternoon we will talk about the South China Sea issue.
In the Foreign Ministry, I'm responsible for Asian, boundary and ocean affairs, and treaty and law. Much of my time has been spent on the South China Sea issue this year, a frequent topic at meetings between me and friends from ASEAN and other countries outside the South China Sea region, like the United States.
Many media reports about the South China Sea issue do not actually reflect the mainstream views of the international community. Some foreign media, especially Western media, blame China for the current situation in the South China Sea. This is a misunderstanding that shows insufficient knowledge of the Western media about the realities in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia.
Over the past few months, through my discussions with friends from ASEAN countries and outside this region, and my own reflection on the matter, I observed that Southeast Asian countries never really enjoyed peace from the Age of Discovery to colonial times, to WWII and then to the end of the Cold War. This time span can be further divided into two phases. The entire Southeast Asia, except Thailand, was colonised by Western powers before WWII and then occupied by Japan during WWII, and countries in this region obtained independence only by the end of WWII. In the following 20-plus years, they were heavily affected by the Cold War. The US fought a long war in Vietnam, Cambodia suffered foreign invasion and domestic conflict, the US built military bases in the Philippines, and the former Soviet Union also kept strong military presence in the unified Vietnam.
Enormous changes took place in Southeast Asia after the end of the Cold War. The US and the former Soviet Union withdrew troops, and the conflict in Cambodia came to an end. Since then, Southeast Asia has enjoyed 26 years of peace, making possible stability and prosperity and enabling the China-ASEAN relations to grow. China resumed diplomatic relationship with Indonesia and established that with Singapore in 1990, and with Brunei in 1991, thus having diplomatic relations with all Southeast Asian countries. China and ASEAN also developed a dialogue partnership, of which we are to celebrate the 25th anniversary this year. Over this past 25 years, China has become the largest trading partner of ASEAN and many of its members, and ASEAN is now China's third largest trading partner, next only to the EU and the US. Two-way trade has exceeded US$400 billion. In the meantime, China became Asia's biggest and the world's second biggest economy in 2010.
These development achievements may have invited jealousy. The US launched its "Asia-Pacific rebalancing" in 2010, and the six years afterwards have seen profound impacts in Southeast Asia. As far as the South China Sea issue is concerned, the "Asia-Pacific rebalancing" emboldened certain ASEAN countries, a typical example being the Philippines' provocation of the Huangyan Dao Incident in 2012 and its unilateral initiation of the South China Sea arbitration in January 2013.
There is much attention these days in the western media coverage about China's construction on the islands and reefs. But China only started such construction at the end of 2013, the timing of which indicates that China was forced to react, given the changes in regional situation. Some media reports have been blaming China's construction on the islands and reefs for the rising tension in the South China Sea. We do not agree because China was actually the last one to carry out such construction, after the Philippines and other claimants. And a major difference here is that the other claimants' construction has been on Chinese islands and reefs that they illegally occupied, whereas China's construction is on its own islands and reefs. It is wrong of the US and Western media to name China the source of rising tension in the South China Sea.
As the largest coastal country of the South China Sea and the world's biggest trading nation in goods, China has a high stake in the South China Sea which is a crucial trading route. The peace, stability and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea is critical to China. As a matter of fact, China cares about the peace and stability in the South China Sea more than all other countries, the US included. No one should doubt this. Even for its own sake, China is firmly committed to upholding regional peace and will take action against possible threats if necessary.
This is my opening remarks, and I'm ready to answer your questions.
1. Newsweek: China has dispatched military vessels and aircraft in response to the "Freedom of Navigation Program" implemented by the US in the South China Sea. How does China view the potential conflicts that may ensue?
Liu Zhenmin: We respect the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea of all countries including the United States under international law. But the recent actions by our American friends seem to have gone beyond the scope of "freedom of navigation and overflight" entitled by international law.
According to international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries enjoy two types of freedom of navigation and overflight: first, in territorial sea and airspace, a country must meet the standard of "innocent passage" or obtain the approval of the coastal states and pay due regard to their sovereignty, security and dignity; second, in areas beyond territorial sea, a country enjoys the freedom of navigation and overflight but it also needs to pay due respect to the sovereignty, security and dignity of other countries concerned.
It has been 37 years since the US launched its "Freedom of Navigation Program". The US knows China's positions and policies concerned. The US should be aware that its freedom of navigation and overflight is only in certain areas of the South China Sea, and it should be careful not to intrude into the territorial sea and airspace of China and surrounding countries.
As I said, China needs a peaceful and stable South China Sea and has no intention for frictions with US military vessels and aircraft. But the US should refrain from making provocations. We certainly don't want another air collision like the one on 1 April, 2001. The world is changing and the China-US relations are deepening, the US should be friendlier toward China. You may still remember the meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Obama at the Annenberg Estate in 2013. The theme of that meeting was to build a new model of major-country relationship between China and the United States. A consideration behind this concept proposed by President Xi is to avoid the "Thucydides trap". China won't become another Soviet Union. There are three elements in this new model of major-country relationship between China and the US - non-conflict and non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. The American friends quite recognize the first and third elements, but are somehow reluctant on the second. We respect the US, and naturally we hope the US respect China as well.
Development is the common aspiration of the 1.3 billion Chinese people. Three years into the building of major-country relationship, bilateral ties between China and the US are getting closer, trade and investment growing steadily, and cooperation yielding win-win results. The interests of the two countries are closely interconnected, and the two countries have win-win cooperation on global issues such as climate change and the Iranian nuclear issue. The Asia-Pacific is actually the only area where China and the United States have different views, but even here the difference is not large. China respects the US presence in the Asia-Pacific and hopes the US will also respect China's increasing role in this region. In sum, China is confident in the future of China-US relations.
2. Newsweek: Does China have a red line on the South China Sea issue? If yes, what is it?
Liu Zhenmin: My answer is both yes and no. We have made it known to the US about our red lines on a number of issues. For instance, we have asked the US not to support "Taiwan independence" and to support the cross-Strait reunification. On the South China Sea issue, we have asked the US not to take sides or support its so-called ally against China. A major problem now in Southeast Asia or the entire East Asia is America's military alliance. If there is a red line, it is that we don't want the United States to infringe upon China's sovereignty and security. On these two matters, there is no room for China to compromise or make any concession. We, the Chinese, fought for decades to change China from a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country into an independent country with national sovereignty and security. President Xi Jinping said to President Obama that the Pacific Ocean is vast enough for two big countries as China and the US. Our two countries can have sound cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, the Pacific and beyond. There is no need for the US to make provocations near the shore of China.
3. The Guardian: What's China's attitude toward the award of the South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines? What do you think of the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS)?
Liu Zhenmin: The first thing people should know is that the arbitral tribunal established at the request of the Philippines is not an international court or a permanent court of arbitration, but a temporary arbitral tribunal comprising five arbitrators designated by Mr. Shunji Yanai, former president of the ITLOS. The Philippines claimed that the arbitration it initiated on January 22, 2013 was not to settle any specific disputes, but to ask the arbitral tribunal to judge on questions about the interpretation and application of the Convention. China does not accept or participate in the arbitration, and the arbitral tribunal has lent a ready ear only to the Philippines. I think the award will probably be in the Philippines' favour.
China doesn't see the arbitration as a move of good will. It is intended to legalise the Philippines' illegal claims and negate China's rights in the South China Sea. The Chinese government released the Position Paper of the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Matter of Jurisdiction in the South China Sea Arbitration Initiated by the Republic of the Philippines on 7 December 2014, which gives a full explanation about China's position. Our position is clear: the arbitral tribunal has no jurisdiction over the subject matter. In fact, in a number of bilateral agreements, China and the Philippines agreed to settle the South China Sea disputes through negotiation and consultation, and both countries have signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea ("DOC") along with other ASEAN countries in 2002. The Article 4 of the DOC stipulates that disputes in the South China Sea should be settled by directly concerned states peacefully through negotiation and consultation. As to maritime delimitation, the Chinese government issued in 2006 a declaration under Article 298 of UNCLOS to exclude maritime delimitation from UNCLOS compulsory dispute settlement procedures.
China recognises the dispute settlement procedures provided by UNCLOS, but the Philippines' initiation of arbitration and the arbitral tribunal's establishment of jurisdiction are obviously against the Convention. The South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines is nothing but a political scheme for one party to insult the other and will be recorded as an infamous case in the history of international law. The Philippines has acknowledged the existence of disputes with China. But the arbitration it initiated is, as the Philippines claimed, not intended to settle the disputes. Then why should China participate in it and comply with the so-called "award"? We can expect propaganda by countries like the Philippines and the US about the award having binding power for China. China will make clear its position of not recognising or accepting the award and will justify why the award has no binding power.
China will stay committed to settling the South China Sea disputes with the Philippines through negotiation and consultation, and we hope the next Philippine administration will adopt new thinking on the issue. Arbitration is not the way out and will give no benefits to the Philippines, but only doing harm to China-Philippines relations. Meanwhile, we don't see any gains for the US from the arbitration case. We don't understand why the US has been so active in backing the arbitration behind the scene. As time goes by, I believe the plot will eventually come to light. In sum, the arbitration initiated by the Philippines is dishonest and not based on good will. China will not accept or participate in it, let alone to recognise the so-called "award".
4. NBC: If the difference between China and the US over the South China Sea issue cannot be resolved, will that affect their interactions in other fields?
Liu Zhenmin: As a matter of fact, China and the US don't have major clash of interests in the South China Sea, and neither wants frictions. The US has made an issue of the "freedom of navigation and overflight" recently to echo with the arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, and it has been helping the Philippines build up military capacity. Nonetheless, we believe the US government is well aware of its interests in the South China Sea. It hopes to use the South China Sea issue as an excuse to restore military presence in the Asia-Pacific. The US has actually achieved this goal already, and has no need to enter into military conflict with any country in the Southeast Asia. What matters now is that the US government should recognise that time is changing, and there are far more benefits for China and US and China and Southeast Asian countries to cooperate rather than going to war. China doesn't want a war, and we will oppose the US if it initiates any conflict in East Asia. And certainly, if events such as the Vietnam War or the war on the Korean Peninsula happen again, China will have to defend itself.
But we think such things will not happen. Some reports on the situation in Southeast Asia by media from countries in this region, the US and the West are not balanced. The joint military exercises and patrols by the US and relevant countries cannot besiege China, not possible 30 years ago and much less today. No one can stand in the way of China's development. I would like to share with you some basic facts. In its fastest growth, the Chinese economy contributed as much as 50% to the world economic growth, and 30% even today. The US economy also contributes a big share in the growth of the world economy. Thus no one wants to see frictions between China and the US, because slowing down of the Chinese and US economies is bound to affect the global economy. I don't know whether in the United States there are people who want war in East Asia. But no country in this region, from Northeast to Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, wants to have a war. We hope the US government and military can join East Asian countries in cherishing peace and stability in the region.
Frankly speaking, there are different voices within the US about the Asia-Pacific, and its domestic politics is less predictable recent days. This worries us and we hope consensus could be reached inside the US to work with China on the new type of major-country relationship that features "non-conflict and non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation". This will lead to sound interactions in the Asia-Pacific and serve the interests of China, the US and the region at large.
5. Chicago Tribune: When the Arbitral Tribunal makes the final award, will China accept and recognise it? What does China think of the future trend of the South China Sea situation?
Liu Zhenmin: China will not implement the award, nor will the "award" change anything. There is no agency entitled to act as the international "police" and "award" depends on countries for recognition and implementation. This is the essence of international law, which needs the respect from sovereign nations.
From procedure to substance, the arbitration initiated by the Philippines doesn't comply with international law including the UNCLOS. Even after the tribunal makes its award, the South China Sea issue will still exist and the US will not be able to settle it. It has neither the capability nor the authority to do so. At the end of the day, the South China Sea issue has to be settled by China and ASEAN countries through negotiation and consultation.
The US is being nosy to intervene in the arbitration. China and ASEAN have their own channel to solve the South China Sea issue, i.e. the DOC signed by China and ASEAN countries in 2002, and a consultation mechanism set up for its implementation. In addition, after many years of negotiation, China and Vietnam finalised the maritime delimitation in Beibu Gulf in 2001, followed by another 10 years of negotiation that led to an agreement signed in 2011 on the basic principles of solving maritime issues. The negotiation between China and Vietnam is still ongoing, covering maritime delimitation and cooperation in areas of low sensitivity. China has similar communication mechanisms with Malaysia and Brunei.
In fact, before the Philippines' unilateral initiation of the arbitration, China and the Philippines had many dialogue mechanisms and confidence-building measures. At the time of the previous Philippine administration, China, the Philippines and Vietnam even signed an agreement on maritime seismic research cooperation in some areas of the South China Sea. Such cooperation discontinued due to the change of administration in the Philippines. This shows that China and the Philippines have the basis for settling the South China Sea disputes through negotiation and consultation, and this basis is in keeping with international law including the UNCLOS. Arbitration is not the basis for seeking settlement. The attitude of the new Philippine administration is important for whether China and the Philippines can cooperate on the South China Sea. If a right position is adopted, I believe cooperation can continue.
There are still many maritime disputes unsettled in this world, and the South China Sea issue is not the only one. China and ASEAN countries should be fully aware of the complexity and long-term nature of the South China Sea issue, and have confidence and patience for negotiation and consultation. Pending the final settlement, China and ASEAN countries should actively carry out practical cooperation on the sea, uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea through cooperation, and make sure that freedom of navigation and overflight is not affected. We also hope that countries outside this region, including the US, will move toward the same goal with China and ASEAN countries and support closer regional cooperation, not the other way round.