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Regional tensions on display at Fifth Xiangshan Forum

Regional tensions on display at Fifth Xiangshan Forum

Last week's Fifth Xiangshan Forum in Beijing demonstrated just how difficult it will be to resolve disputes in the South China Sea as long as key parties believe history must arbitrate the veracity of claims to sovereignty over contested islands.

Scholars, officials and military officers from all around Asia were present, including many from the claimant countries in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. 

One of the strongest messages at the forum was how intensely most regional actors feel that there is a problem of deep strategic mistrust, and how important genuine communication and dialogue is in overcoming that mistrust. Yet these same actors were all firmly committed to their own positions and seemed to show little interest in accommodating the views of others. This is not particularly surprising at an event like this, but it does not bode well for achieving lasting peace and security.

Several of the presentations from ASEAN countries made repeated references to the importance of resolving disputes in the region multilaterally, rather than focusing on bilateral negotiations. This was understood by forum-ologists as a thinly veiled criticism of China's approach to the ASEAN region. [fold]

The Philippines' Major General Raul Del Rosario was more direct. The Philippines currently has a case against China with UNCLOS over parts of the South China Sea, including the Scarborough Shoals — small islands in what the Philippines calls the West Philippines Sea. In his speech, the Major General thanked China for its assistance after Typhoon Haiyan and emphasised that maritime disputes were only a small part of Sino-Philippines relations. He then laid out his view that creating a regional environment based on trust was becoming increasingly difficult, when, as he put it, some actors promote their own narrative and expect others to change their outlook accordingly. He criticised unnamed states for being inflexible, subjectively interpreting facts and ignoring the rule of law.

Should the audience have been in any doubt as to what he was referring to, the Major General then explicitly spoke about the Philippines' commitment to resolving disputes with China in the South China Sea based on the UNCLOS rules-based approach, and behaving according to what he described as universal principles and norms. 

The speech may have been counter-productive for the Philippines. One of China's narratives is that the US has historically attempted to prevent it from resuming its rightful role in world, and that it will continue to do so. This view is powerfully resonant among the Chinese people. By promoting UNCLOS and universal norms, the Philippines is likely be seen in China as aligning itself with the US, meaning its views can be dismissed. Arguably, the Philippines would be better off pursuing its objectives by speaking with the same voice as ASEAN.

The Major General's views were certainly in line with that of the US speaker. Earlier in the same panel, US Admiral (Ret) Gary Roughead, Former Chief of Naval Operations, set out the non-official US position. As with the official US position, Roughead emphasised freedom of navigation, that the US 'rebalancing' to Asia was not a return as it had in fact never left and that all claimants in the South China Sea should clarify their claims consistent with international law. But Roughead went beyond the official US line in that he specifically raised concerns over what he described as a lack of clarity around the 'nine-dash line' that China argues delineates its territory in the South China Sea. 

The Chinese speakers, regardless of affiliation, emphasised the importance of Asian solutions. Referring to President Xi's vision for an Asia security concept outlined this year, General Chang Wanquan from the Ministry of National Defence made three suggestions for long-term stability and security in the region. Firstly, he recommended strengthening dispute-management procedures to deal with crises, which he explained as negotiating with respect to historical facts and timely information sharing. His second point was to strengthen defence cooperation to build strategic trust, and thirdly, he called for further strengthening of regional security architecture to foster a stronger sense of belonging to a community of common destiny and move past Cold War thinking. These points were generally well received.

General Chang painted a picture of China as alone in a largely hostile world, not yet fully recovered from its recent history, and still vulnerable to threats to its national interests. He put forward an image of China committed to being at the forefront of Asia's 'community of shared destiny' as a means for securing the region's stability. The image of China 'recovering' from history was shared by the other Chinese forum participants, and forms the basis of China's position on its territorial disputes in the South China Sea. 

Chinese media coverage of the Xiangshan Forum reflected General Chan's understanding. State media outlets such as the People's Daily portrayed China's role in the forum as a benevolent regional actor working tirelessly to ensure peace and stability. These reports focused on how China is collaborating with numerous countries in the region, such as India, Vietnam, the US and Kyrgyzstan, while other states such as Japan and the Philippines are undermining China's efforts to build security. Non-state outlets such as the South China Morning Post look more at how China is seen as a threat by countries in the region.

More than once during the Forum, Europe was used as an example of how mistrustful states could create and maintain a long-lasting peace. However, European cooperation required states to take the facts of the day as the foundation for the future, with some reference to history. In Asia however, powerful actors like China insist that history should be the foundation for cooperation, with some reference to current facts. Given that most if not all historical facts can be countered by an earlier fact, who has the right to decide at what point 'reality' should be established? 

For Chinese officials and everyday people alike, the narrative of national humiliation at the hands of foreign powers is an absolutely fundamental aspect of Chinese identity, and the only reality on which legitimate claims to territory in the South China Sea can be based. 

As such it is almost inconceivable that the Chinese Government could concede territory in the South China Sea without suffering a strong domestic backlash. Yet it seems that some compromise will be necessary for genuine cooperation and dialogue in the region. Policy-makers hoping to influence China's behaviour in the South China Sea need to understand just how critical the politics of history is to Chinese national identity and not presume that Chinese leaders will be either willing or able to back away from their understanding of historical facts.

Photo courtesy of Xiangshan Forum 2014 Website.

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