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China should improve ties with neighbors in face of US pressure: Scholar

China's Harbin guided missile destroyer is shown during a joint naval exercise with Russia in the East China Sea in May, 2015. Photo: SCMP Pictures

The ruling by the Hague-based arbitral tribunal has increased tensions in the South China Sea, where China is facing renewed diplomatic pressure from the US, Japan and other claimants to the strategic waterway. In an interview with the, Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore and chairman of the academic committee of the Institute of Public Policy at the South China University of Technology, shared his views about the current situation in the South China Sea and what measures China might take to deal with the geopolitical challenge from the US and Japan.

The following is the transcript of the interview. How will the July 12 ruling denying China's historic rights to the waters within the nine-dash line and defining the sea features in the Nansha Islands as reefs affect China?

Zheng: The ruling has thrown China into an international diplomatic crisis, in which the media of the West, the Philippines and Vietnam are using the arbitration case to defame China by describing it as an unruly nation. Nevertheless, China will not accept the so-called award.

The so-called ruling will affect China's relationship with the Philippines and offer a good opportunity for other claimants to the South China Sea to pursue their national interest. Those claimants may not be able to solve the maritime disputes in an American way. Instead, they are likely to resort to bilateral negotiation, which will bring more benefits to them because the ruling can be used as their bargaining chip. In addition, China's rejection of the ruling may force the Philippines to get back to the negotiating table. How will China deal with the relationship with the Philippines and other parties involved after the ruling?

Zheng: The South China Sea disputes should be solved under the policy framework of putting aside disputes and carrying out joint development proposed by Deng Xiaoping. As a big power, China is willing to share rights like fishing with other claimants in the South China Sea, if they recognize China's sovereignty over the bulk of the waters.

There is a view that China is isolating itself in the region due to its diplomacy. I beg to differ. China has close economic ties with the countries in the Asia Pacific region. China is also deepening the relationship with some ASEAN nations. The provocations by some ASEAN nations in the South China Sea will surely lead to a differentiation within the regional bloc. What will China do in response to the US' deployment of more military forces in its neighboring countries?

Zheng: Many people believe that the deployment of more military forces in the South China Sea will be beneficial. Based on this view, China should also increase its military presence in the region. The problem is that some countries are making trouble and do not want to solve the problems (by means of diplomacy). For example, if the Philippines and Vietnam had not carried out land reclamation in the South China Sea, China would not have conducted similar activities on the Yongshu Reef. If the US seeks militarization of the South China Sea, China will not concede. China will do some things to let the US pay a price for his involvement in the South China Sea disputes in the future when the US will change its policy toward the South China Sea. What are the odds of a war in the South China Sea?

Zheng: At this stage, there is no possibility of a war in the South China Sea. China will not battle with the Philippines and Vietnam. The newly elected Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has expressed his willingness to hold bilateral negotiations with China to solve the maritime dispute. Despite the fact that the US' strategic goal is to contain China, I do not think that US will go to war with China for the sake of the Philippines. The US will endorse the Philippines from the outside. But I think a skirmish that cannot be called war will be unavoidable, but it will be controllable. Facing the tensions in the South China Sea, what should China do to avoid the Thucydides Trap?

Zheng: The focus of China's periphery diplomacy does not lie in the South China Sea because China and the US have no interest conflict in the region, where the freedom of navigation is recognized by both sides. China is always open the door to the Philippines and Vietnam, with which China has made contact for thousands of years. China has persistently stuck to the principle of solving the disputes through negotiation.

The real focus of China's diplomacy is about the geopolitical contest with the US and Japan. The geopolitical contest is so complicated, and if it cannot be dealt with properly, the parties involved will be mired in the Thucydides Trap. That is China's long-term challenge.

Therefore, the South China Sea issue will not pose a big challenge to China. Big power diplomacy and big power relationship is the focus of China's periphery diplomacy. In the long run, what China will do is to deal with the relationship with the US, as the US is trying to bring together Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to form an Asian version of NATO, about which China should stay vigilant.

Given that China is not capable of driving the US out of the South China Sea, China should make every effort to prevent the formation of an alliance of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Compared with the South China Sea disputes, the US' deployment of the THAAD system in South Korean is more detrimental to China's national security. China should develop its relationship with South Korea in order to stop South Korea from leaning toward the US. How important is East Asia in the US diplomacy since the implementation of the pivot to Asia policy?

Zheng: East Asia is the top priority in the US diplomatic strategy, as the region is at the center of the global geopolitics. The implementation of the pivot to Asia policy indicates that the US has re-defined itself as an Asia Pacific country, with the geopolitical contest in the region intensifying.

The trend that China is rising while the US is waning will not change. In the East China Sea and South China Sea, China is fighting for its own national interest, while the US is fighting for its global supremacy, which will consume much of its energy. The US and Japan are hyping up the South China Sea tensions to avert public attention to their domestic affairs that have severe problems.

Therefore, diplomacy is not the foundation of a country's rise, but domestic affairs. Everything is going to be fine, if China can grow its economy. What will China do in face of the US' containment?

Zheng: China should deal with the relationship with South Korea, Japan and Taiwan separately. In South Korea, some forces are supportive of the deployment of the THAAD system, while some object to it. In light of its close economic ties with South Korea, China should keep cool in dealing with the relationship with the country. China should make use of economic and diplomatic approaches and military deterrence to deal with Japan. In addition, China should deepen cooperation with Russia and jointly impose military pressure on provocative Japan.

(The article is translated and edited by Ding Yi.)

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