Ambassador Cui Tiankai's Interview with The Wall Street Journal on South China Sea


On May 28, 2015, Ambassador Cui Tiankai had an interview with Mr. Adam Horvath, World Editor of The Wall Street Journal.


Here is the link to the report and video of the interview:

The following is an edited transcript of the interview:

The Wall Street Journal: Ambassador, thanks for being here. As we speak, this week rhetoric has kind of been heating up between the U.S. and China over a development in the South China Sea-what most countries call the Spratly Islands and China calls the Nansha Islands, and both what China has been doing there and the U.S. response to it. Can you tell me where you think this kind of battle of words is going, over what is the right thing for each country to be doing in that region?

Ambassador Cui Tiankai: Well, first of all, it's really nice to be here and talk to you. Maybe we should start by setting a few facts straight. First, what China is doing is only on the islands and reefs that fall within our sovereignty and our control. We are not trying to take back the islands and reefs occupied by others, although we believe such occupation is illegal. Number two, what we are building there is mainly for civilian purposes. Of course, we have facilities for defense purposes-but the main components are for civilian services. The services will be rendered to the ships not only of China, but also other countries-services like shelter, search-and-rescue, meteorological observation, marine environment protection, fishery production and so on and so forth. Number three: It was very surprising to us that the United States has overreacted to the situation and is escalating the situation. The U.S. is sending military reconnaissance planes to the region and with reporters on board-which is clearly an attempt to provoke and escalate the situation. And the U.S.A. is also making a lot of statements-making false accusations against China and taking sides in the territorial disputes in the region. That would really make the situation in the region less stable. So we are worried about such overreaction from the United States.

WSJ: As the U.S. explains it, they're responding to some moves by China that the U.S. views as provocative and other neighbors in the region view as provocative. One is to claim airspace over a territory that is more than just the reefs themselves. And another is concern about-you mentioned defense facilities-militarization of that area, which is strategically important lying between China and several of its neighbors. Can you understand the idea of provocation that other countries are seeing on China's part?

Cui: I think that the fact is that we are more concerned than anybody else about the safety and freedom of navigation in the region, because China is one of the major trading countries in the world. We have such a huge volume of import and export going through South China Sea. So, stability is very much of our interest, and I believe it will serve the interests of everybody else-unless someone has a different agenda. If somebody really wants to see escalation of the tension in the region, that could be made as excuses for advancing their military deployment, for setting up Cold War-type alliances there, and setting up new missile defense systems. If that is the real intention of somebody, then everything else will fall into place-it's easier to see the logic. Otherwise, I don't see the logic why they're making such statements.

WSJ: Well, I've seen this language about the idea of a hidden agenda before from officials from the China foreign ministry talking about-seem to be talking about-the U.S. Does China really feel that the U.S. is trying to use an excuse here to ramp up its military engagement in this region?

Cui: I think, as I said earlier, stability in the region will certainly serve the interests of everyone: China, United States, the regional countries. But what the U.S. is doing has given rise to a lot of questions in China: Why are they overreacting? Why are they reacting like this? Why are they sending more and more military ships, airplanes, for reconnaissance activities so close to China? What is the real intention? Is there any attempt to replay the Cold War in Asia?

WSJ: Does China feel encircled by recent U.S. moves with its allies? There are a few things I know you can point to-there's enhanced defense cooperation with Japan and with Philippines, and with Australia as well. But again, in all of those, the countries involved see themselves as responding to China's ramping up of its projection of strength, its plans for military building of aircraft carriers and claiming more ownership of the seas and airspace in the area.

Cui: Actually, we are not worried of our relations with our neighbors. I think our relations with our neighbors are developing quite well. For instance, our relations with the Asian countries, on the whole, are quite good. And you see recent developing relations with India-even with Japan. So China stands for relationships of friendship and cooperation with our neighbors.…But what concerns us is not that we might be encircled, or contained-I don't think anybody in the world has the capability to contain or encircle China. What worries us is that such action would have implications on the regional and global stability. If we let this Cold War mentality continue to play out, then there might be a replay of the Cold War in Asia. There might be confronting military blocs-kind of Cold War military blocs confronting each other in Asia. Will that serve the interest of anybody: China, the United States, Asians? I don't think so, because if regional stability is disrupted, if the good momentum of economic growth is weakened, if the good prospect of regional economic cooperation is diminished-everybody will be hurt. Those are the consequences. I don't know if people in Washington, D.C. have ever given serious thought to such consequences.

WSJ: It's true what you say about other agreements with your neighbors and good relations in other ways-and in a way, I think that's sometimes what is so confusing to people watching this set of disputes from afar: Why is this combination of reefs so important-not only to claim, but to build upon and to expand claims on?

Cui: These claims-the disputes over territorial claims-have been there for a long, long time. And I think, if everybody is taking a constructive approach, we will be able to manage them-to control them-so the overall relationship will not be disrupted. This is still China's stance. But it is important that no major power try to intervene.…What is even more important is the intention. What is the intention for doing all of these things, to have such frequent, high-intensity, reconnaissance activities. We are not talking about the Gulf of Mexico; we are not talking about the coast of California-we are not even talking about Hawaii. We are talking about South China Sea, which is so close to China. If you don't have any hostile intention, why are you doing all this?

WSJ: Well, I think you know the answers, because the U.S. has alliances with China's neighbors that also have interests in that region-

Cui: But that would imply these alliances are anti-China in nature, if that is an explanation. If these alliances are committed to common security, to cooperation with all of the regional countries, then they should not have done all of these things. The only explanation is that these alliances would aim at China as a rivalry or even an enemy. That's the most dangerous thing.

WSJ: But this does seem like an example where I see the rhetoric rising from what I think I've seen before, on both sides. Is it anti-China for the U.S. to have defense relationships with Australia, and the Philippines, and so forth?

Cui: Well, I think that's up to the U.S. government to give you a clarification-but I think that it will be most counterproductive and even stupid to have such a policy-such an anti-China policy and try to form military alliances that aim against China.

WSJ: But I'm just saying that they do have alliances-they do have defense cooperation. That's not new, that's been going on for some time. To term that as anti-China sounds to me like you're seeing it as more of a threat than before, or publicly calling it more of a threat than before.

Cui: It is not what we are seeing-I think the question is "what they are doing?" You should not do anything that will convince people back in China that you are really directed against us. We only look at the facts.

WSJ: Let me ask you this:Ashton Carter, the U.S. defense secretary, asked for all building by all countries to stop in the islands-to basically take a pause by everybody from this development, because other countries have done [building] as well. Would China be willing to take that pause and stop and have a broader conversation about what's appropriate in the region?

Cui: What about the buildings, the constructions, the facilities that have been built by others for many years? What about them?

WSJ: He's saying stop and have a moratorium for everybody.

Cui: Are they going to pull them down?

WSJ: I guess that would be the next question, right? If you got together to talk about it-that would be one of the next questions.

Cui: The first thing the United States could do in a very constructive way is to stop reconnaissance flights or ships so close to China.

WSJ: If a U.S. aircraft or a Navy vessel goes within 12 nautical miles of one of these reefs, would China consider that reason to fire on the craft?

Cui: Like every other sovereign country in the world, we certainly have the right and capability to defend ourselves.

WSJ: I feel that even asking that question kind of shows the level mutual hostility, or lack of understanding, that's developed around this issue whereas, as you say, around other issues that's not there. I mean, there's plenty of discussion and cooperation on trade and economic issues.

Cui: Yeah, right-you are right. I think we have a much bigger relationship than just these issues. And besides, South China Sea should not be an issue between China and the United States. The United States has no territorial claim in the region. Why should there be an issue between us? And also, as I said earlier: Intention is the most important thing. We'll make our own judgment on what the U.S. is doing and is saying. And we certainly want to have a very positive, cooperative and developing relationship with the United States-not only on trade, on climate change, on disaster prevention-but also on security issues. We are ready for a very positive interaction with the U.S. in the Pacific, in South China Sea. But such approach should be reciprocated and we have always exercised restraint-but restraint should not be one-way traffic.

WSJ: But why would you think the U.S. is seeking to ramp up tensions in that region-what would be the purpose of doing that from the U.S. perspective?

Cui: There is an interpretation of all this, although I'm not convinced yet and I hope that this interpretation will prove to be wrong. But it goes like this: Some people want to see tensions-or even heightened tensions in the region-so that there will be good reason for them to advocate for advancement of military deployment; setting up of new missile defense systems; strengthening the military alliances there and try to make China a landlocked country. So there would be an Asian NATO and the Cold War will replay in the region. There is such a school of thought-although I'm not convinced by it yet.

WSJ: But that's the balance that China has to strike, isn't it? To project the strength that you want and move without being constrained militarily-and yet not rattle your neighbors to the extent where they all band together, ramp up their own approach, and then look provocative to you in return.

Cui: I don't think all our neighbors-

WSJ: Some neighbors.

Cui: Some of them, that's quite true. But you see, China's growing military strength, and maybe presence, is driven not by some grand strategy-but by the growing economic and other needs since China's economy is integrating into the global economy ever closely. And we have such a growing interest in many issues, even in faraway places. So, it's only natural that we should develop capabilities to defend such a legitimate interest. To make sure that our trade with others-our energy resources, imports, and all these economic relations with others-are well-protected. And also, as China develops, there's a growing expectation in the world that China will shoulder a great international responsibility. And we are ready to do that. We are fully aware of this growing need for China to take up more responsibilities internationally. We are ready to do that. I don't think people should see this as kind of a threat. We are responding to the economic needs-we are responding to the growing international expectations. And we are ready to fulfill our international obligations. This will open up a good opportunity for China, the U.S. and others to cooperate with each other-because there are so many global issues. I don't think any country can handle all these issues single-handed. Not China, certainly-but also not the United States. We have to work together on this.

WSJ: Thank you Ambassador for coming and speaking with us.

Cui: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.


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