In his speech at the opening ceremony of the Bo'ao Asia Forum last month, Chinese President Hu Jintao declared that China will try to settle all territorial disputes with its neighbours through peaceful means, explicitly stating that ‘China will continue its practice of settling all disputes with its neighbours over territory, territorial waters and marine rights and interests through friendly negotiation, and play a constructive role in the solution of regional hotspot issues.’ In the coming five years, he pledged, China will be even more active and enthusiastic in implementing its opening-up strategy so as to create and amplify common benefits in Asia.
This declaration is another positive assurance by China to the concerns growing constantly among its neighbours. Thanks to the growth of its economic strength in recent years, China has become ever more powerful in terms of overall national strength. Its military power, meanwhile, has also kept growing along with the continuous progress of its modernization drive. The test flight of its stealth fighter and the assembly of its aircraft carrier, for instance, are just some of the instances testifying to the astounding development of its navy and air force. The rapid growth of China’s military strength has sent some of its neighbours into worry and uneasiness, especially India, Japan, and some Southeast Asian countries involved in territorial disputes with China. In its 2010-2011 report, for instance, India’s Defense Ministry said that ‘India has come to see and pay close attention to the impacts of China’s ever-changing military status on regions near and beyond.’ Last December, Japan decided to transfer its military resources located near its northern border with Russia to its southwestern islands not far from China, a move supported by US defense secretary Robert Gates.
In his capacity as China’s supreme leader, Hu Jintao openly declared, at this regional forum that has caught the eye of the world community, that China will continue its practice of settling territorial disputes with its neighbours through peaceful means, a pledge that may not totally dispel but will at least alleviate the feel of insecurity among countries and regions keenly wary of China’s rise on all fronts.
A casual review of the practice China has followed in the settlement of territorial disputes with its neighbours since 1978 when it initiated the policy of reform and opening-up will readily reveal that Hu’s declaration is actually a reiteration of its long-standing principle governing efforts in this regard. There is no denying that China has once fought a few local wars with some of its neighbours over territorial disputes after its founding in 1949. Ever since the 1980s when it shifted its focus onto economic development, however, China has tried to settle all disputes with its neighbours over territories, territorial waters and marine rights and interests through peaceful negotiations rather than armed conflicts.
Let’s have a look at territorial disputes first. China is a country with the longest land borders and the biggest number of neighbouring countries in the world. It is also one of the countries with the most complicated border conditions. With its land borders extending more than 22,000 kilometers, it neighbours 14 countries including North Korea, India, Viet Name, and Russia. Through peaceful negotiations, China has already sealed border treaties or agreements with 12 of these 14 counties, excluding India and Bhutan, delimiting 90 per cent of its borders. Meanwhile, its negotiations with India and Bhutan over border issues have been going on all the years. Although it is impossible to predict the exact date of successful conclusion of these negotiations, it is highly unlikely for China and India to see their border disputes deteriorating into armed conflicts once again.
Since disputes between China and its neighbours over land sovereignty seem no longer to pose a problem, the chief headache will then come from its dispute with them over territorial waters and marine rights and interest. Specifically speaking, the headache will come from its dispute with Japan over the East China Sea and that with some Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea.
Compared to its dispute with Japan over the East China Sea, China's dispute with several Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea seems to be much more complicated. But this may not be the reality. After all, China signed in 2002 the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) with those concerned states in Southeast Asia, in which the parties concerned promised ‘to settle all disputes relating to the South China Sea through friendly consultation and negotiation and by peaceful means.’ It is true that progress in this regard has been slow. It is even truer, however, that the parties concerned have at least reached consensus to settle disputes by peaceful means instead of military actions and that they have written it into a document. The only effort to be needed afterwards is to turn, through diplomatic endeavours, what has been reached in the document into bilateral or multilateral treaties or agreements that are operable and legally binding.
Except for the development of any grave incident that violates its core interests, such as foreign invasion or declaration of independence by Taiwan, China will not rashly resort to arms because it badly needs a peaceful environment to push forward its economic development. We are justified to believe, therefore, that China is sincere in its hope for peaceful settlement of disputes with its neighbours.
There is one point calling for attention from the countries in this region. Since China is seeing its position in East Asia and Asia as a whole rising ever higher and its strength rapidly attaining the level as it enjoyed before the Industrial Revolution, China will surely try to impose its ever stronger state will in all its diplomatic activities, including its stand about peaceful settlement of disputes with its neighbours. As the situation stands, the countries and regions in disputes with China should make the earliest effort possible to seek solution of these disputes through negotiation with China so as to maximize their own interests.
Lian He is an independent political analyst based in Singapore