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Home > Topics > South China Sea Issue
Ambassador Liu Xiaoming's Q&A after His Keynote Speech on the South China Sea at the International Institute for Strategic Studies
2016/05/24

On 20 May 2016, H.E. Ambassador Liu Xiaoming delivered a keynote speech entitled China is a Staunch Force for Peace and Stability in the South China Sea at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), after which he took questions from the audience. The video of the speech and Q&A in full can be viewed on IISS website. The transcript of the Q&A is as follows:

KPMG: Sir, I just want you to clarify one point. You said that the US warships' transiting near the islands was illegal and is not covered by the right of innocent passage set out in the UNCLOS, which does say warships get through other people's territorial waters provided certain conditions are maintained.

Ambassador Liu: I think the US abused the so-called innocent passage. They didn't show respect for China's sovereignty. They did not notify China first of all. And they didn't seek to get permission from China. So that is totally against international law and international practices.

LSE: Thank you for sharing your insights. Towards the end of your presentation, you hinted at the tension between the US and China. It seems to me that the tensions between the Philippines and China, between the Vietnamese and China could be managed. At the systematic level, as you can see, the US is seen as the system manager, which is to maintain the status quo, and China has been described for over a decade in analysis by semi-official documentations as the 'near peer rival'. It seems that the fundamental thing is managing the tensions between the US and China. What is China doing to make the transition of the relations between China and US peaceful, calm and stable?

Ambassador Liu: As I said in my presentation, from the very beginning, China is not a trouble-maker. Instead, China is a victim in all this. I hope I made myself clear. Before the so-called 'rebalancing strategy' of the US, the South China Sea and the region had been very peaceful. China and the neighboring countries including the Philippines and Vietnam have been talking to each other. We have the Declaration of Conduct and we have managed our differences effectively. This dispute has been there for 30 years. The area has been quiet and stable. But when it comes to the so-called US rebalancing strategy in 2009, I think some countries got emboldened and they thought they had the US behind them. The Philippines changed their approach and submitted the so-called 'baseline'. The Vietnamese also changed their approach. The Philippines refused to talk to us and then they unilaterally go to the so-called arbitration. There are many ways to resolve disputes. According to the UNCLOS, arbitration is only supplementary, while the main method for resolving disputes is peaceful negotiations and consultations between member states. Yet the Philippines resorted to the so-called supplementary measures which are not the main course. I think they thought they had the support of the US.

China wants to have good relations with the US. There is no doubt about it. Over half of my diplomatic career has been devoted to a better relationship between China and the US. I was posted twice in Washington DC. We want to have good relations. We also know that without a good relationship between China and the US, there will be no peace or prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. So we tried very hard and we tried to engage them in consultations. I'm very pleased to see that currently the Security Consultation is right now taking place in Washington DC. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of China is talking to US Deputy Secretary of State. We do have these channels. But the important thing is that the Americans should change the stereotypical mindset of regarding China as a threat. I think that is the problem, that they have been haunted that China would someday take their place as the leader of the world. That is not China's dream. China's dream is to revitalize the Chinese nation. We know what we are doing and we know the tremendous challenges ahead of us. We have 1.3 billion people to take care of. After my tour in Egypt, I was seconded to Gansu, one of the poorest provinces in China, as Assistant Governor. I know how poor that area is. I know there are challenges and tremendous tasks for China to achieve its modernization. China is the last country who wants to have bad relations with the US. We are not interested in becoming a superpower. The UK used to be a superpower. Superpower should take a lot of responsibilities. Our primary task is to achieve development and take good care of our people.

IISS: I just want your thoughts on the recent incident that the Pentagon went on record to say yesterday that China made an 'unsafe' intercept by sending two aircrafts to make unsafe intercept, to US EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft. In your opinion, is this US antagonisation?

Ambassador Liu: I think it is a dangerous move on the US part. The Americans are trying to challenge China's sovereignty over these reefs. That is a very dangerous move. They do it under the cloak of the so-called 'freedom of navigation'. We know the ocean is wide enough for the military aircrafts and vessels to have freedom of passage. But they made close reconnaissance. They want to challenge China's defense capabilities. So this is a very dangerous move. The case you mentioned in fact has been refuted by the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. China has every reason to defend its sovereignty. Chinese aircraft wanted to find out what the American aircraft wanted to do. But they did it in a very professional way. They moved within safety boundary. We've tried to avoid anything unexpected from happening, especially the conflict. But if the Americans kept doing this, I think they would be walking into very dangerous waters.

BBC: I have two questions. Ambassador, you criticized the Court of Arbitration. I hear Chinese officials do that before, but I can't remember when, saying that it wouldn't accept the result. Can you confirm that that is what you are saying: you are not going to accept the results of the rulings of this court regardless of what they are? Another related question, you seem to be linking the tribunal's rulings with sovereignty. It's my understanding that it's got nothing to do with sovereignty. They are merely going to rule on the status of reefs, islands, rocks, islets in the South China Sea. You've already said that China has been planting and fishing on these islands for many centuries. Why do you then reject that narrow definition they are looking at? Because that for sure will help your case. If you are certain and you see to it that your claims are right, why don't you accept their results?

Ambassador Liu: Let me tell you why. As for your first question, the reference to this arbitration tribunal from the very start is illegal. How could you expect an illegal tribunal to result in a good case? We have no obligation at all, from the very beginning. We think the tribunal itself is a violation of the UNCLOS and international law.

BBC: What are the obligations that you are not going to accept?

Ambassador Liu: We are not obligated at all by this arbitration. I can say in very clear-cut terms: no matter what decision the arbitration is going to make, it makes no difference on China's sovereignty over these islands, and is not binding at all as it is illegal and unfair as I said clearly in my presentation. With regard to what decision will the arbitration make, I already gave the example. When some people rob you and put their booties from the robbery before a court, asking the judge to make a decision, whether on ownership or status of these booties, as long as the judge handles this case, it has an impact on the ownership and on the sovereignty. The Philippines tried to divert the attention on this case. They tried to wrap up the case under the cloak of law. Of the first 15 submissions, 8 have been rejected because the tribunal is concerned about getting involved in the dispute. That is too obvious for them to be seen to violate the UNCLOS. Despite the change in tactics, it doesn't change the essence of this case. So from the very beginning, this case is about sovereignty and delimitation. It is beyond the authority and jurisdiction of arbitration, even by the UNCLOS. The establishment of the arbitration tribunal itself is a violation of the UNCLOS. China is fighting this case according to international law. It is fighting this case in order to protect the international law.

LSE: I'd like to ask your view on US economic narrative in the South China Sea. Where do you think it stands now? On the security side, Ashton Carter and others are quite proactive in escalating their rhetoric. But on the economic side, the American narrative, TPP, now stands in jeopardy. Whether or not it will be ratified either before or after the change in presidency is very much up in the air. China's successful narrative in Southeast Asia has been primarily economic. Do you see the change in the presidency as working toward China's continuing successful conversation with Southeast Asia?

Ambassador Liu: Of course we watch US presidential election very closely and with great interest. No one can predict the outcome of the election. But I would say, we are ready to deal with whoever is elected by the American people, and whoever is the new occupant of the Oval Office. We put more emphasis on what they will do after the election. I hope the new administration will set store by and bear in mind the interest of China-US relations. China stands ready to work with the US to move China-US relations forward.

Director Inkster (Moderator): Thank you very much. I'm afraid we have run out of time so I have to draw a halt to the proceedings here. Let me make one brief observation, which is, we found in IISS now that the strategic salience of China is such that it is taking an increasing amount of our time. I think we concluded recently that one in every three of our books has China as a topic, which I think tells you something. I'd like to invite all of you to join me again in thanking Ambassador Liu for the very detailed and comprehensive speech.

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