Maritime Spat Simmers as U.S., China Talk○WSJ(2016.06.05)
At Shangri-La dialogue, Beijing rejects accusation that it is isolating itself through its actions in South China Sea
A high-ranking Chinese official spoke stridently against U.S.-led criticism of China’s activities in the South China Sea, ahead of economic and security talks between the two countries in Beijing which began Monday.
CHUN HAN WONG
Updated June 5, 2016 8:56 p.m. ET
SINGAPORE—China pushed back strongly against U.S. criticism of its stance on maritime disputes as the two sides prepared for economic and security talks expected to be dominated by tensions over the South China Sea.
The dialogue, beginning Monday in Beijing, takes place with China bracing against growing international pressure over its territorial claims and asserting its intent to exercise greater clout as a major power. Economic strains between Beijing and Washington, meanwhile, have flared over currency and trade practices.
The intent of the high-level talks, which President Barack Obama launched in 2009, is to try to find common ground. U.S. officials, for instance, have said they would seek Beijing’s help in pressuring North Korea over its nuclear program. Last week, though, Washington took additional steps to cut off Pyongyang from the global financial system—a move that could expose China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, to negative economic effects.
The annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue is a three-day affair beginning Monday that draws hundreds of U.S. and Chinese officials. They are led on the U.S. side by Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and on the Chinese side by State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Vice Premier Wang Yang.
Disagreements were evident again on Sunday. At Asia’s largest security conference in Singapore, Beijing’s highest-ranking delegatespoke forcefully against U.S.-led criticism of China’s activities in the South China Sea, particularly its refusal to accept a coming tribunal ruling at The Hague that could contradict its maritime claims in the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Adm. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Chinese military’s Joint Staff Department, dismissed what he characterized as U.S. interference in Asian security issues, and rebuffed accusations that Beijing risked isolating itself through its assertive behavior and expansive claims in the South China Sea.
“We were not isolated in the past, we are not isolated now, and we will not be isolated in the future,” Adm. Sun said at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of Asian and Western defense officials. Instead, he criticized other countries for retaining a “Cold War mentality” when dealing with China, saying they may only “end up isolating themselves.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Saturday told the conference China risked erecting a “Great Wall of self-isolation.” He urged Beijing to abide by international law and respect the outcome of The Hague arbitration case, which was filed by the Philippines in 2013 in a bid to curtail China’s territorial assertions in the South China Sea. The ruling is expected within weeks.
China’s denunciations of the tribunal and its legal authority dominated discussions at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Several Asian and Western defense chiefs—including those from Japan, Malaysia, Britain and France—urged compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos, under which the tribunal was established, though only a few of them referred directly to China.
“The timing of this conference was very sensitive for China,” coming just ahead of the tribunal ruling, said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Chinese were very much on the defensive.”
A senior Chinese delegate admitted as much, saying they face an uphill task in overcoming foreign “propaganda” against Beijing. “International public opinion is still being controlled by the Western world,” said Maj. Gen. Jin Yinan, a professor at China’s National Defense University. “In such unfavorable circumstances, we must still do our best to use public forums to explain China’s position.”
To this end, Adm. Sun and other Chinese delegates spent much time at the weekend conference repeating Beijing’s longstanding claims over the South China Sea, which overlap those from five other governments, including the Philippines. They also reiterated arguments that The Hague tribunal had acted beyond its authority by accepting the arbitration case.
‘The Chinese were very much on the defensive.’
—Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Instead of third-party arbitration, Chinese officials have long favored bilateral talks with rival claimants, all of which are dwarfed by China militarily and economically. Beijing has said it won’t accept negotiations that rely on The Hague ruling, and blamed the U.S. for hyping up the issue as a pretext for advancing its military footprint in the region. It has also cited Washington’s failure to ratify Unclos, which Beijing has done, to accuse U.S. officials of being hypocritical in their criticism of China.
On Sunday, Adm. Sun criticized some “big countries”—a thinly veiled swipe at the U.S.—for encouraging and enabling smaller states to “bully” China, while chiding the Philippines for unilaterally pursuing arbitration. “Any countries not directly concerned are not allowed to sabotage our path of peace for selfish gains,” he said. “We don’t make trouble but we don’t fear trouble.”
Adm. Sun’s comments didn’t convince some conference delegates, who peppered him with questions over perceived inconsistencies in Beijing’s position. Chung Min Lee, an international-relations professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told the admiral “many Asian countries don’t trust China” because of its “aggressive” posture in the region.
Others remarked that the admiral’s speech—delivered with a loud and blustery tone—seemed to be tailored for the Chinese audience, laced with robust rhetorical defenses of national interests, which drowned out conciliatory language that could assuage foreign concerns about Beijing’s intentions.
Despite their public combativeness, many Chinese delegates privately felt Mr. Carter had taken a fairly moderate tone in his speech. But the U.S. defense chief’s claims that China was isolating itself struck a nerve and prompted Adm. Sun’s retort, according to people familiar with the Chinese delegation.
The question, however, is whether China may feel compelled to find ways to defuse regional concerns. One possibility is for Beijing to quietly desist from some of the activities the Philippines complained about in its arbitration suit, such as interference with Philippine fishing activities in disputed waters, while maintaining its public defiance against the tribunal.
But Adm. Sun’s strident defense suggests Beijing’s assertiveness will persist for the foreseeable future, according to Ms. Glaser, the Washington-based researcher. She noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping has stoked support for his Communist Party by promoting a tough stance on sovereignty issues, and touting his vision of national renaissance.
“We’re on a trajectory with Xi Jinping pushing his ‘Chinese Dream’ and the victim mentality, and the stimulation of nationalism,” she said. “China seems singularly unable to put itself in the shoes of any other country.”
—Felicia Schwartz contributed to this article.