At the beginning of this February, President “Noynoy” Aquino of the Philippines startled the world and particularly infringed his neighbouring country by comparing China’s claim over the South China Sea to Hitler’s invasion of Sudentenland in the late 1930s. This remark was uttered by the president to draw international concern for the heightening tension in the region due to territorial disputes between China and its southeast neighbours. This writing would like to suggest how the remark can be interpreted in a more constructive way instead of a source of ire.
The South China Sea is a resource-rich area, prone to conflict due to overlapping claims by several parties: China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Everyone has their reason and logic to support the claim, leaves the issue hitherto unsettled. China once under Deng Xiaoping’s administration advocated “shelving disputes and seeking joint development” (gezhi zhengyi, gongtong kaifa) to cope with this issue and it proved to be relatively successful. There was no major military conflict to seize for the claimed territory by any claimant. On the contrary, the region can maintain stability and building cooperation for economic development. China, without a single doubt is the greatest beneficiary from the circumstance. China has been developing itself so rapidly and enormously until its southeast neighbours realise that they have been left behind in terms of economy, technology and militarily.
In terms of military, China has demonstrated itself as a paramount naval power in the region. According to a Pentagon report in 2009, the People’s Liberation Army, Navy (PLAN) is equipped with 260 vessels, including 75 major warships and more than 60 submarines, a power that is incomparable to any Southeast Asian countries. In terms of science and technology, Chinese oil companies have the capability of conducting high-risk projects including oil and gas exploration in an area of 3,000m below sea level.
These are the facts that strengthen China’s claim over the disputed territory. By consolidating its naval capability, China has a trump card to deter any effort by other claimants to capture the disputed area and by adopting its own technology China is less dependent on foreign giant oil companies to exploit the resources. Accordingly, China is the definite victor in the competition and this creates uneasiness for other claimants. By saying China is the winner, does not mean it can “take back” its claimed territory, since no claimant has the right to conclude the dispute unilaterally. Yet with great power, comes greater responsibility. The regional stability is now mainly in the shoulder of the most powerful entity. China needs to perform as a great responsible power which deliver peace to the region. Just as Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying: “Observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities, bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership.” Evidently, China has achieved great national success by employing Deng’s strategy. From Luo Guanzheng’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, China could also learn how mighty and powerful Cao-cao was defeated by an alliance of Liu Bei and Sun Quan for maintaining a high-profile attitude (maybe the Philippine president should read the Chinese historic novel as well, along with his European interest).
In addition, Deng Xiaoping once said that the disputes might be settled in the hand of the shrewd generations after him, then Chinese leaders may patiently wait until “the condition is ripe”. This also accounts if the condition does not prevail in their era. Hence, the remarks of the Philippine president should be interpreted as a “recognition” to China’s paramount power. It is China’s job to calm its counterparts, calm its neighbours. The region needs China, whose rapid development brings stability, harmony and prosperity (anling, muling, fuling). China itself does not need any appeasement; it is its neighbours who need to be appeased with the traditional moral loftiness (chuantong meide). Its source of comfort should lay in the success of Deng’s strategy.
Sydney, 11 February 2014