Remarks of Ambassador Cui Tiankai at Center for Strategic and International Studies


Thank you, Doctor Hamre,

We are here today to discuss the situation of the South China Sea. For that matter, let me first of all refer all of you to two important statements issued by the Chinese side earlier today. One is the Statement of the Government of China on China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea. The other is a statement issued by China's Foreign Ministry on the award of the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea Arbitration established at the request of the Republic of the Philippines. I think these two statements have outlined China's position with great clarity and authority. I strongly recommend all of you have a careful reading of these two documents.

On that basis, within the framework of these two important documents, let me offer a few comments, and maybe we could discuss these points of views.

First, why does China reject the arbitration?

We believe the submission and initiation of this arbitration violates the general practice that arbitration should be premised on state's consent. China made an optional exceptions declaration back in 2006 in accordance with Article 298 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which excludes issues like maritime delimitation from such processes. This case is done without the consent of China. Also, it exceeds its own jurisdiction. The case was carefully masked. But it is beyond any doubt that the core issues are territorial disputes, and territorial issues are not subject to the UNCLOS.

People may say the tribunal may decide on its own jurisdiction. But it does not have a free hand. It has to make the decision in strict accordance with the provisions of the UNCLOS. Failure to recognize that is a matter of professional incompetence. Deliberate disregard is a matter of questionable integrity.

Also this case was initiated not out of good will or good faith. We all know that the UN Charter calls for development of friendly relations among its members, and the UNCLOS itself starts with a call for the spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation. But this arbitration case was initiated not in such good faith or good will. It was a clear attempt to use the legal instrument for political purposes.

What is more disturbing is that the proceedings will probably do a great deal of damage to the efforts by members of the international community to engage in negotiations and consultation for settlement of any possible disputes. What is astonishing is that this tribunal even belittles the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC is an instrument that is the result of a decade-long joint diplomatic efforts by China and ASEAN countries, and it embodies the solemn commitments of all parties concerned. This arbitration case will probably open the door of abusing arbitration procedures. It will certainly undermine or weaken motivation of countries to engage in negotiations and consultations for solving their disputes. It will certainly intensify conflicts and confrontation. In the end, it will undermine the authority and effectiveness of international law.

Such absurd proceedings were taking place in combination with military coercion - with mounting activities by destroyers, aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, reconnaissance planes and many others. I believe this is an outright manifestation of "might is right". Under these circumstances, China has no alternative but to oppose it and reject it. We are doing this to safeguard our own interests, as we have the right to do so. But more importantly, we are doing this to defend international justice and the true spirit of international law, as we have the responsibility to do so. What is happening to China today could probably happen tomorrow to any other member of the international community, and China has to stand up to it and stop it.

China has the firm will to safeguard its own interests and rights, and international justice. We will not yield to any pressure, be it in the form of military actions, media criticism or some self-claimed legal bodies. And we will certainly not make deals on our core interest just for a few words of praise. Indeed, in any country, if a government fails to stand up and defend its own sovereignty and territory, if it fails to defend the core interest of its own people, there is no image to speak of.

Second, what has intensified tensions in the region?

China has longstanding sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea. This sovereignty had not been challenged until the 1970s when more and more Chinese islands and reefs were illegally occupied by others. But even so, the situation was under control. China and other countries in the region were able to manage the differences for so many years, and we were able to develop an overall friendly and cooperative relationship with each other. We even succeeded in formulating the DOC, and there have been small but significant progress towards joint development of resources.

But tensions started to rise about five or six years ago, about the same time when we began to hear about "pivoting to Asia". In the last few years, disputes intensified, relations strained and confidence weakened. These issues have taken so much time and energy at so many regional and international fora, and the time and energy should have been spent on promoting cooperation. Have anyone really benefited from this? I don't think so. Not China, not ASEAN countries, not even the U.S. in the long run. If the Asia-Pacific is destabilized, if the momentum of regional economic growth is weakened, if armed conflict started, everybody's interest will be hurt, including our interest, the interest of other countries in the region, and I'm sure the interest of the U.S.

As for those people who might have the illusion that they could have a free ride on the pivoting exercise and gain something from it, please go to countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria and ask the people there. Be careful what you wish. You might actually get it.

Some might put the blame on China's recent reclamation activities. But the fact is that China is the last country to do so, and we are doing so only on the islands and reefs under our own control - islands and reefs where we have people stationed there. We are not trying to take back the islands and reefs that are illegally occupied by others. And speed does not change the nature of the issue. With the completion of the facilities we are building there, I am sure we will be able to offer more international public goods, such as services for civilian use. Of course, the bottom line is that we will be in a position to defend ourselves.

Many things have been done under the name of freedom of navigation. But freedom of navigation for commercial vessels has never been a problem in the South China Sea. "Freedom of Navigation Operations" by the U.S. were originally designed as a counter-measure to the provisions of the UNCLOS. Many contracting parties believe that distinctions should be made between freedom of navigation of commercial and civilian vessels, and freedom of navigation of military vessels.

China firmly stands for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, because these sea lanes are the economic life lines for China and many countries in the region. We will do everything possible to safeguard the unimpeded flow of commerce and stop any attempt to destabilize the region. But what worries us is that there might be some self-fulfilling prophecies. Such an assembly of aircraft carriers, airplanes and sophisticated weapons could pose a real threat to the freedom of navigation of commercial and civilian vessels. Such a concentration of fire-power would be a source of concern any where in the world.

Third, how should we deal with the disputes now?

I believe negotiations and consultations among parties concerned still offer the most feasible and effective way. Diplomatic efforts should not, and will not be blocked by a scrap of paper or by a fleet of aircraft carriers. China remains committed to negotiations and consultations with other parties. This position has never changed and will not change. In fact, China has an excellent record in this regard. We have already solved boundary issues with 12 neighbors out of 14 on the land. We even have agreed with Vietnam for part of the maritime delimitation in Beibu Bay (Tonkin Gulf). So we are confident that China and other parties concerned, if not disturbed, will be able to solve the disputes over time through negotiations and consultations. This record of China of solving boundary issues with its neighbors is quite unique in the world. I don't think you could give me another example of solving such long-standing border issues with its neighbors in the last few decades.

So the door is always open for negotiations and consultations. We have full confidence in our relations with our neighbors, particularly with ASEAN countries. Maritime or territorial disputes are only part of the relations between China and some ASEAN countries. It certainly does not represent the entirety of the relationship between China and ASEAN countries as a group. We have been neighbors for centuries. We are actually a community of common destiny. All of us have high stakes in regional stability, peace and prosperity. All of us will benefit a great deal from closer cooperation and enhanced mutual confidence, and none of us will ever pivot to anywhere else in the world.

Fourth, What then should we do between China and the U.S.?

First of all, these territorial issues in the South China Sea should not become issues between our two countries. We don't have territorial disputes between us. Still less should they be seen as part of "strategic rivalry" between our two countries. These are just territorial disputes. They should not be magnified or exaggerated. And we should never allow them to define the important relationship between our two countries.

Secondly, cold war mentality will not solve problems of today's world. Today's world needs more than ever before partnership among countries, especially among the major players. Today's world needs more than ever before a set of new international relations centered on win-win cooperation. We in China stand for a new model of relationship with the U.S., characterized by no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. We want to see constructive and positive interactions in the Asia-Pacific between our two countries. We are here to see what kind of choice the U.S. will make: how you see the world today, how you see China's development, and how you see the relationship between our two countries.

I know that you have important choices to make this year, but this is also an extremely important choice for you to make. Will you make the right choice? Can we go forward with a win-win partnership? I hope you make the right choice, and I hope you do so in a very clear way.



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