“China wants face, not territory”: the East Asia Summit and the South China Sea

The upcoming East Asia Summit, the first to include America and Russia, is sure to involve some interesting South Sea diplomacy.

Ahead of the meeting, the Philippines has in the past few weeks been trying to organize a united ASEAN front based on demarcation of disputed and non-disputed sections of the South China Sea – known as the “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZoPFFC)” proposal. China of course opposes this, and a Xinhua article yesterday claimed that it was little more than an attempt to help the US with its “return to Asia” strategy.

The Philippines’ efforts seemed at one point to have at least some momentum when, late last month, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang endorsed the ZoPFFC proposal. However, the idea seems to have decisively hit the wall in recent days, with the Malaysian Foreign Minister declaring that his country didn’t support the idea of raising the South China Sea issue at the EAS:

China is showing a positive step by organizing seminars and workshops . . . To introduce another forum will complicate the matter further.

Cambodia’s FM actually laughed when asked about the idea: “The problem is how to avoid . . . duplication,” he said, perhaps referring to each claimant state’s bilateral negotiations with China.

But a US presidential aide indicated today that Barack Obama will raise the issue at the EAS anyway. The Global Times has been swift in reporting the spokesman’s comments, under one of its inimitable headlines: ‘America plans to force itself into the South China Sea dispute, claims the issue is appropriate for the EAS’.

The Sixth East Asia Summit, aimed at pushing forward the process of East Asian integration and community, will begin in Bali on November 19. Yet the US, despite not being a relevant party to the South China Sea issue, and making its first appearance at the EAS, has declared that it wants to “discuss the South China Sea” at the summit.

However, the only major news website that has the story anywhere on its front page is Sina, which is running a toned-down CNS report, buried among other small headlines, rather than the GT’s fury-laced version, and this hasn’t attracted a great deal of attention so far (only 1,200 or so participants in the discussion, most comments voicing standard denunciations of American temerity). One particularly interesting reader comment, however, is to be found on the Chinese-language Wall Street Journal’s report, titled ‘China opposes discussion of the South China Sea at the EAS’:

What opposing discussion of the South China Sea at the EAS means is: “you can occupy the islands, but you can’t say so publicly”. China is only after face, not territory!

Although China definitely is after the territory, this comment is actually very incisive.  The reality is that China currently occupies very little in the South China Sea – it has the Paracel Islands, but none of the genuine islands among the Spratlys – and as a result the CCP government loses face with the Chinese public every time the issue arises.

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Update 1: Phoenix has just now posted the CNS report [zh] on the Obama staffer’s comments, if it provokes comment i will add some.

Update 2: QQ is running a report that ‘Japanese media claim US and ASEAN will issue joint statement on South China Sea’ [zh]. The report is from the Yoimuri Shimbun.

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One Comment on ““China wants face, not territory”: the East Asia Summit and the South China Sea”

  1. […] As the posts on this site illustrate, this is the case for hardline nationalist views, but it is also true for […]


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