Taking the cue from both China’s and Malaysia’s approach to South China Sea disputes.
RECENTLY, the South China Sea disputes had been hyped up as a hotspot issue in regional security and discussed in almost every regional and international forum, resulting from the high-profile interference of and the manipulation by some powers outside the region.
In fact, this issue should be solved through negotiation and consultation by parties directly concerned.
Furthermore, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which has never been affected, has been misinterpreted by some country as “freedom exclusive to its own military vessels and planes” and flexing its muscles.
The illegal arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines has been labelled as a “benchmark of law-ruling” by the West, suggesting that judicial settlement is the only way to solve disputes in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the approach of non-conflicting and friendly consultation has been overshadowed by the noise and chaos.
One day, a friend of mine asked me, is Malaysia a claimant in the South China Sea? If yes, why is the Malaysia-China and Philippines-China relations poles apart? This is indeed a good question.
There is no essential difference between the two pairs of ties.
As China’s close neighbours, Malaysia and the Philippines have enjoyed traditional friendship with China.
Both were the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with China among Asean states. However, while the Malaysia-China relationship is “at the best time of history” and on the path to a new era of “Diamond 40 Years”, the Philippines-China relationship is experiencing severe difficulties.
The reason behind such a striking contrast lies in the different ways the two claimants chose to deal with the disputes with China.
While Malaysia has consistently been committed to maintaining friendly relationship, properly handling disputes, strengthening cooperation and enhancing comprehensive strategic partnership with China, the Philippine president Benigno Aquino III, on the contrary, misjudged the international situation, acted as a pawn of an outsider’s geopolitical strategy, and chose to confront China.
China and Malaysia Set a Model of Amicable Consultations
China and Malaysia enjoy a time-honoured friendship. There are lots of historical records in China about the Malay peninsula since the Tang and Song Dynasties.
In the 15th century, the Ming Dynasty established close relations with the Sultanate of Malacca. Over 600 years ago, Admiral Zheng He stationed at Malacca five times during seven voyages.
He promoted friendship, developed trade and maintained justice in the area. From Admiral Zheng, people have learned the essence of Chinese culture where peace and good neighbourliness always come first.
They do believe that China has no gene of expansion, plunder or aggression. Instead, China can be a trustworthy friend and reliable partner of Malaysia.
Then Prime Minister Tun Razak first adjusted the policy on China 42 years ago with strategic insight among Asean leaders in the context of the Cold War.
He went to China for “an ice-breaking trip” and signed the Communiqué of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations with Premier Zhou Enlai which opened a new chapter in bilateral relations. Since then, China and Malaysia have helped each other and overcome many difficulties hand in hand.
The relations between the two countries have taken a lead in China’s relations with Asean countries and set a model of friendship in the region.
After four decades, bilateral relations between China and Malaysia are full of vitality and stimulus with deeper mutual trust, frequent high-level visits, constant party-to-party and local exchanges and fruitful cooperation.
China has become Malaysia’s largest trading partner for seven years and Malaysia is China’s largest trading partner in Asean for eight years, and sixth largest in the world.
The bilateral trade volume has reached US$100bil (RM407.5bil). There are also many iconic cooperation projects.
The high-tech cooperation has reached the skies and seas. Malaysia has long been a popular destination for Chinese tourists.
Consulates-general in Kota Kinabalu and Penang and Nanning have been set up. The Malay Studies Centre was established in the Beijing Foreign Studies University and the Confucius Institutes were set up in Universiti Malaya and Segi University.
Xiamen University Malaysia Campus welcomed its first batch of students this year. Pandas Xing Xing and Liang Liang settled in Zoo Negara and gave birth to a baby panda named “Nuan Nuan”, reflecting our heartwarming bond.
Bilateral cooperation in finance, technology, defence and other fields is also striding forward. The seed sowed by the leaders has grown into a flourishing tree, blossomed and yielded fruits.
It is normal for neighbours to have differences and problems. Malaysia is one of the claimants in the South China Sea.
However, this has never hindered the development of our relations. The key is that the leaders of both countries weigh the situation in the perspective of history and experiences, recognise the trend of the world and always place cooperation and mutual development as a priority.
The leaders have frequently exchanged views on the issue of the South China Sea and reached a series of important consensus.
Both sides agree to deal with disputes through friendly consultations and dialogues, avoiding the issue of sabotaging the bilateral relations.
Furthermore, both China and Malaysia object to intervention by forces outside the region. When the Philippines was unilaterally pursuing the South China Sea arbitration case in May 2014, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib revisited China to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.
During the visit, the Joint Communiqué signed by the leaders reaffirmed a series of important consensus.
Both sides emphasised that “all sovereign states directly concerned shall exercise self-restraint and settle their differences by peaceful means, through friendly consultations and negotiations, and in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982.”
Both sides recognised that “intervention or involvement of parties not directly concerned could be counter-productive and further complicate the aforementioned differences.”
It is based on such consensus that the two sides have properly managed their differences, pushed forward their relations, benefited the two peoples and set a good example for regional countries in dealing with disputes.
Unilateral Arbitration is a Wrong Option
The Philippines’ conduct was contrary to Malaysia’s friendly and proper handling of the disputes with China.
In recent years, President Aquino abandoned the commitment of the former government, relied on a superpower to hype up the disputes in the South China Sea, and insisted on confronting China.
He became world “famous” as the arbitration case is a farce. When his term ends, apart from the severe consequences of undermining the China-Philippines traditional friendship, his political legacy will only be piles of bills from the tribunal.
China and the Philippines have a long history of friendly exchanges. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1975, only one year after China and Malaysia.
Until 2012 when the Philippines deliberately stirred up the Huangyandao Incident and went on a path of confrontation, relations between the two countries had developed soundly and stably with fruitful cooperation in various fields which brought tangible benefits to their two peoples.
For instance, it was China and the Philippines that first launched joint maritime seismic undertaking which became a precious endeavour in the South China Sea.
The two sides launched friendly negotiations and achieved positive outcome in establishing dialogue mechanism, carrying out pragmatic cooperation and promoting joint development.
During President Arroyo’s visit to China in 2007, both sides praised the relations between two countries as a “golden era”.
It is deeply regrettable that on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of China-Philippines relations in 2015, the bilateral ties were upset by the arbitration case, instead of entering a “diamond era” from the “golden era” as China and Malaysia has.
Compared with the breadth, depth and warmth of the friendly interaction between China and Malaysia, shouldn’t the Philippines introspect itself?
As a Chinese old saying goes, “close neighbors are more important than remote relatives.” Forces outside the region may come and go whenever they want, but China and Philippines are neighbours that cannot move away from each other.
As a country committed to regional peace and stability as well as promoting economic development, China sincerely welcomes all the regional countries to take a ride together for deeper mutual benefit and win-win cooperation.
The Philippines’ inflexibility on the arbitration case will only sacrifice its own opportunities and interest.
Amicable Consultation is the Only Way Out
People in littoral states along the South China Sea have lived for a long time in peace and harmony, ready to help each other when in need. Although in the 1960s and 1970s, some changes took place and new problems emerged, China and Asean states have consistently engaged in dialogues and communication and maintained overall peace and stability at sea without interference from powers outside the region.
The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed by China and Asean in 2002 has played an indispensable role.
Even if the South China Sea issue heats up, China will still stick to settling disputes through negotiation and consultation in a peaceful way. China has also proposed the “Dual Track Approach”, that is, the relevant disputes should be solved by the sovereign states directly concerned through consultation and negotiation, and that peace and stability in the South China Sea should be maintained through joint efforts of China and Asean member states.
The approach is in full accordance with international laws and practices, and has been supported by most of the Asean countries including Malaysia and Brunei which are also claimants in the South China Sea.
History will prove again that friendly consultation is the right way to settle the disputes in the South China Sea.
China is strongly opposed to the unilateral action by the Philippines and China’s position of non-acceptance and non-participation in the arbitration case will not change.
The new Philippine Government should discard illusions and return to the right track. As a matter of fact, Malaysia and Brunei have already set good examples.
Just as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated, the arbitration case is a knot that has impeded the improvement and development of China-Philippines relations.
As to how to untie the knot, it depends on the Philippines. China wishes that the new Philippine Government will make a wise choice in consideration to improving the relations and enhancing mutually beneficial cooperation between the Philippines and China.
The Philippines should cease its arbitral proceedings, refuse to be a pawn anymore and return to bilateral negotiation with China.
China is standing ready to commit itself to full and effective implementation of the DOC and making continuous efforts with all relevant parties to maintain peace and stability in the region.
The writer is the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Malaysia. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.