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Chinese Scholars offer differing viewpoints on South China Sea importance to China

From L to R: APPFI President, Dr. Aileen Baviera, Prof. Aaron Rabena, graduate student Wang Xutong and Professors Chen Hanxi and Zhou Fangyin. Photo courtesy of UP Asian Center.

Two Chinese scholars from the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies of the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies presented contradicting opinions on the significance of the South China Sea territorial claims to China, during a public lecture last May 4 at the University of the Philippines’ Asian Center.

The public lecture entitled "Between Assertiveness and Self-Restraint: Understanding China's South China Sea Policy” featured Dr. Zhou Fangyin, the Director of the Center for China’s Regional Strategies of the Guangdong University, and Dr. Chen Hanxi, an International Relations professor from the same university.

Dr. Zhou argued that based on China’s actions and how the South China Sea disputes are mentioned by the Chinese government in official statements and documents, the disputes would appear not to be at the top of the China’s foreign policy agenda. Dr. Chen, however, argued the contrary.

Zhou’s argument is based on the fact that, following two top-level diplomatic conferences held by the Chinese government in 2013 and 2014 where all the members of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo were present, the South China Sea was not mentioned in the public documents that were produced from the two high-level conferences.

On the other hand, Chen pointed out that China’s new form of diplomacy, which he called great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, expanded China’s national interests.

In a White Paper issued by the Information Office of the State Council last 2011, China’s core interests included “state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity, and national reunification, China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability, and the basic safeguards ensuring sustainable economic and social development.”

Furthermore, Chen noted that the South China Sea as well as the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, another group of islands being disputed by China with Japan, has been articulated by the state-run paper People’s Daily, government officials, and Chinese scholars as part of China’s core interests. 

Zhou, however, noted that the importance of the South China Sea territorial and maritime dispute may fluctuate depending on factors such as claimant countries’ actions on the dispute and the stability of the region based on the development of the issue.

In general, Zhou pointed out, the priority status of the South China Sea issue will depend on the bigger picture of Chinese diplomacy. China’s approach to the dispute is changing, reflecting a learning process where at one point it pursued a more assertive diplomatic line of ‘striving for achievement’ instead of its stance in the past of ‘keeping a low profile,’ but may now be giving way to a more restrained approach as the country focuses on Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The public lecture was co-organized by the UP Asian Center and the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, Inc. or APPFI to a full house of over a hundred attendees.