Leading Chinese Diplomat Warns of War Danger in South China Sea

Former State Councillor Dai Bingguo, one of the key partners in the US-China relationship before his retirement, returned to Washington to give a major speech at a gathering organized by the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on July 5. In his speech, Dai warned that the “confrontational rhetoric” needs to be toned down and that the US’s “heavy-handed intervention in the South China Sea issue” needed to be “scaled back.” “The rhetoric of a few people in the US has become blatantly confrontational,” Dai warned. “How would you feel if you were Chinese and read in the newspapers or watch on TV reports and footage about US aircraft carriers, naval ships and fighter jets flexing muscles right at your doorstep and hear a senior US military official telling the troops to be ready “to fight tonight”? Wouldn’t you consider it unhelpful to the US image in the world? This is certainly not the way China and the US should interact with each other.

“Having said that,” he continued, “we in China would not be intimidated by the US actions, not even if the US sent all the ten aircraft carriers to the South China Sea. Furthermore, US intervention on the issue has led some countries to believe that the US is on their side, and they stand to gain from the competition between major countries. As a result, we have seen more provocations from these countries, adding uncertainties and escalating tensions in the South China Sea. This, in fact, is not in the interest of the US. The risk for the US is that it may be dragged into trouble against its own will and pay an unexpectedly heavy price.” Dai also said that it is urgent that the Philippines withdraw their arbitration submission. “If the tribunal insisted on its way and produced an ‘award’, no one and no country should implement the award in any form, much less force China into implementation. And the Philippines must be dissuaded from making any further provocation,” he warned.

At the same time Dai underlined that China was always prepared to negotiate with the Philippines and also to work together with the U.S. to resolve the growing tensions. “China has all along been committed to resolving the disputes peacefully through negotiation and consultation,” he said.  Even though the South China Sea is clearly not an issue between China and the US, China is willing to maintain communication with the US on maritime issues, and work with the US and all other parties to keep the situation under control, considering our shared interest in peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. Our two sides may work together to find ways to jointly promote regional peace and stability through constructive dialogue on matters such as regional confidence-building, effectively managing disputes and advancing maritime practical cooperation.

“What we need,” he added, “is not a microscope to enlarge our differences, but a telescope to look ahead and focus on cooperation. Both China and America are great nations with insight and vision. As long as the two sides work for common interests, respect each other, treat each other as equals, have candid dialogue, and expand common ground, China and the US will be able to manage differences and find the key to turning those issues into opportunities of working together.”

Dai was giving the keynote at a closed event at Carnegie. While there were  a variety of views represented on the U.S. side, there was general agreement with the mainstream line, that China should accept the results of the upcoming arbitration decision and cease the construction on the islands claimed by them. The first point was clearly underlined by Ambassador John Negroponte, who was the U.S. responder to Dai’s speech.

Negroponte said “The United States considers the arbitration to be a legally binding dispute resolution.” One of the U.S. participants even urged China to “put aside” its territorial claims, provoking a strong rebuke from one of the Chinese scholars. One U.S. Naval Academy scholar even went so far as to say that China’s signing of the UNCLOS maritime treaty in 1996 effectively abrogated any previous territorial claims, a claim, which is absurd on the face of it, as that UNCLOS treaty has no authority to regulate ANY territorial dispute. Nevertheless there was a general understanding at the event that the concentration of military forces in the region can easily lead to a conflict that could spiral out of control.

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