China at Sea: Gently pursuing ‘peaceful ascendancy’

At the turn of the 21st century, China explicitly promoted what it called its foreign policy of ‘peaceful ascendancy’.  To quote Yoichi Funabashi in 2003:

“Chinese officials are now at pains to deny that they have any ambition to reign supreme again in Asia or destabilize the world economically, politically, or militarily. …. Chinese scholars and government officials are studying the lessons of history to avoid repeating the mistakes that led the USSR and the US into a protracted, dangerous Cold War. Choosing a path of ‘peaceful ascendancy’, China’s leaders are trying to wisely steer their country to greatness, not planning to make a brash play for power as some critics fear.

On Tuesday the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled that, with regard to the territorial dispute over the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea:

  • There is no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the South China Sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.
  • Some areas of the Sea are within the EEZ of the Philippines; China has violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines there, by interfering with fishing and oil exploration, constructing artificial islands and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing there.
  • Chinese law enforcement vessels have “unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels”.

China indicated from the outset that it would not recognise the tribunal’s decision, and has called the ruling ‘null and void’.

The territorial dispute over the Spratleys was a valuable opportunity for China to demonstrate that it means what it said a decade ago.  A foreign policy that rests on the premise of peaceful relations should dismiss the use of force in the pursuit of national interests and respect the rule of international law.

As it grows stronger economically, politically and militarily, China has often got it right on international relations in recent years, although like many other countries it still faces significant human rights issues.

But the fourth dimension of national greatness – moral strength – paradoxically requires self-restraint on the other three.

It is not too late to avoid an enduring strategic error.   It is one thing for China to dismiss the PCA, a somewhat quaint institution dating from 1899 whose founding members were the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Japanese empires, and the Qing Dynasty.

But China could earn moral prestige, as important as anything else in global affairs, by announcing a readiness to develop a cooperative framework for joint exploration of the South China Sea with all its neighboring countries. It could be a leader.

2 Comments Posted

  1. yes, another well written post from KG.

    Wandering how climate mitigation factors in, as China pegs back US control of international waters.
    China has a gas deal with Russia. And remember that Washington did a CO2 deal with China, seemingly to limit the size of the Russian gas deal. Washington remains relaxed about CO2, but does their weather-control-program have more problems than planned? Trusting the Chinese are sharing weather-tech with the Russians. They probably need that southern sea to buffer against typhoons. The Philippine’s waters are probably Western run, just like Washington flows in South Korea, etc. Blessed are those who can trust their neighbours. Some neighbours have been known to spray the clouds with chemicals and low frequency radio pulses. Feeling sorry for the decision makers, trying to make sense of these complex situations.

    Free Tibet!

  2. Bonjour KG,

    Nice way to keep our hopes high and think forward positively!

    Wonder what Dr Jian Yang would reflect on your views…

    See you soon in Kerikeri!

    Warm regards
    Olivier Autet

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