China is trying to improve frayed relations with neighbours to pre-empt efforts by the US to intervene, says strategic expert B Raman.
"China befriending the distant while alienating neighbours?"
That was the question posed by Li Hongmei, the columnist of the Chinese Communist Party controlled People's Daily Online, in an article November 12. The theme of the article was that while China's relations with distant countries such as those in the European Union have been steadily improving, its relations with its Asian neighbours are not cordial.
The article quoted a Chinese saying that "a distant water supply is no good in putting out a nearby fire" and added: "To wit, China will never bend its consistent determination to seek after the good-neighbourly mood in its vicinity."
Concern over the 'nearby fire' in China's relations with Japan and with some ASEAN countries, particularly Vietnam, due to lingering disputes over the question of sovereignty over some islands in the East and South China Sea has been increasingly reflected in some articles carried by the party and government-controlled media in recent weeks following the exacerbation of tensions with Japan in the wake of the incident of September involving the Japanese Coast Guard and a Chinese fishing trawler near the Senkaku group of islands under the control of Japan, but claimed by Beijing as Chinese territory.
This concern has been aggravated by the open interest evinced by the US since a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July last in the territorial disputes on the ground that these could affect the freedom of navigation in the area.
Chinese perceptions that the US is seeking to exploit the disputes over the islands to drive a wedge between China and these countries and for re-asserting its role in South-East and East Asia led to the publication of introspective articles and comments calling for corrective action by Beijing without giving up its territorial claims.
The People's Daily article cited above was preceded by an editorial in the Global Times the previous day titled: 'China needs to mitigate external friction'. It said inter alia: "Before China reaches a certain level of industrialisation, it has to spare some efforts to deal with various disputes and conspiracies. In its neighbourhood, China needs to make sure regional disputes over material benefits do not escalate into ideological confrontations."
In an interview with the government-controlled China Daily on November 12, Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue said that Beijing was dedicated to a peaceful resolution of all maritime disputes -- so long as outside parties were not involved in the talks.
"The security environment around China is very complicated, with traditional and non-traditional security challenges intertwined. A new security concept should be established with mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination at its core."
After rejecting any US role in the matter, he said: "It is important to refrain from expanding, complicating or internationalising the disputes. We believe that disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully through bilateral negotiations between the parties directly involved."
On November 11, the China Daily published a interview given by President Hu Jintao to the South Korean media on the eve of his departure to Seoul to attend the G-20 summit. He said in the interview: "China cherishes its relationships with neighbours and will adhere to its traditional Asia policies. China values its traditional friendship with its neighbouring countries and adheres to implementing the policy of building good neighbourly relationships and partnerships. Beijing insists on properly handling problems through consultation. Despite the difficulties, China's relations with its neighbours still show a promising trend."
The China Daily quoted Pang Zhongying, of the Beijing-based Renmin University, as saying that Hu's comments are a timely response to reports that China's relations with Southeast Asian nations are deteriorating over territorial issues and that US involvement is needed and that "the president is assuring the nations, on the eve of two key international summits, that China's attitude of peacefully handling the problem will never change."
It also quoted Shi Yinhong, Pang's colleague at the Renmin University, as saying that "there are diplomatic difficulties in Asia confronting China and that the problems concern different situations. You cannot blame all of them on a certain country. There are also plenty of chances to improve relations given the mutual interests."
After having spurned the Japanese initiative for a bilateral summit between Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on the margins of the recent East Asia summit at Hanoi, China, worried over its negative image, agreed to a summit between Prime Minister Kan and President Hu on the margins of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum) summit at Yokohama in Japan on November 13.
The Xinhua news agency quoted Hu as having told the Japanese prime minister during the meeting that China and Japan should proceed with determination in the right direction for stronger bilateral ties, pushing for strategic and mutually beneficial relations along a healthy and stable track. A press release issued by the Chinese foreign ministry on the meeting made the following points:
The 22-minute meeting took place at the invitation of Kan. Hu said it serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples for the two countries to get along in peace, friendship and cooperation. He urged the two countries to take a strategic and long-term perspective and to observe the principles of the four important political documents: the joint statement in 1972, the Peace and Friendship Treaty in 1978, the joint declaration in 1998 and the joint statement this May.
Hu said both sides should work together to conduct human and cultural exchanges and to deepen mutual understanding and friendship.
China and Japan, as two important trade partners, should also increase dialogue and coordination in global affairs, get committed to the rejuvenation of Asia, and join hands to tackle global challenges, he said.
Kan said he completely agreed with the Chinese leader's views on bilateral ties. Kan pledged to strengthen exchanges and cooperation between the two countries in every sector and to push for stronger bilateral ties.
In a media briefing, Japan's deputy chief cabinet secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama, who was present at the Hu-Kan meeting, gave the following Japanese version of the meeting:
He believed the talks marked a 'big step forward' in improving the two nations' ties.
Kan and Hu shared the view that 'development of long-term, stable strategic, mutually beneficial ties is of benefit to both countries' people and is also extremely important to peace and development in the region and the world.'
The two leaders also agreed to further expand public and private sector exchanges and strengthen cooperation in economic and other global issues in the light of the discussions at the APEC and G-20 talks. On the Senkakus, Kan was the first to touch on the matter, 'clearly' conveying to Hu Japan's 'firm position' on the islands. Hu also conveyed China's position on the islands. Fukuyama refused to elaborate the position taken by the two leaders.
Kan again mentioned about restoring Japan-China ties to where they were in June. Kan's previous face-to-face meeting with Hu took place on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Toronto in June, during which they agreed to enhance strategic, mutually beneficial relations.
The meeting between Hu and Kan was followed the next day by a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his Japanese counterpart Seiji Maehara. According to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Yang and Maehara agreed to implement the agreements reached between Hu and Kan by firmly sticking to the direction of developing China-Japan relations and safeguarding the overall interests of bilateral ties.
The spokesperson said that the two foreign ministers agreed that China and Japan should adopt positive measures to enhance friendly feelings between the two peoples, boost practical cooperation, and improve bilateral relations.
Japan's Kyodo News Agency said Maehara, in his talks with Yang, urged China to reopen talks on developing the natural gas field in the East China Sea, while Yang took a cautious stance and said a proper atmosphere should be created first.
The news agency added that the two foreign ministers also agreed to cooperate on the goal of nuclear non-proliferation on the Korean peninsula and on tackling global warming and striving to further develop their strategic and mutually beneficial partnership.
It has been reported that following the talks the Chinese authorities have promised to expedite customs clearance of pending shipments to Japan of rare earths, but have not given any assurance of removing the quantitative cuts in their exports in future. The Japanese electronic industries are almost totally dependent on imports of rare earths from China. The quantitative restrictions and the slowing down of the customs clearance of pending consignments were resorted to by Beijing as an act of reprisal for the Japanese action in detaining the captain and other crew members of a Chinese fishing trawler. Even after the Japanese Coast Guard released them, China did not withdraw these measures. While it is now apparently willing to expedite the customs clearance it has stuck to its quantitative restrictions. Japan has reportedly sought the supply of rare earths from India and Vietnam. While they have reportedly agreed to consider the Japanese request, this is not for tomorrow. Their production is miniscule compared to China's production, which meets 97 per cent of the global requirements.
Concern over the possibility of the US exploiting the differences of China with its neighbours has definitely introduced a re-thinking in the Chinese policy towards its neighbours. This does not mean any Chinese concessions on the question of territorial sovereignty.
The Chinese give indications of toning down their rhetoric and restoring harmony in their relations with their neighbours. It is interesting to note that the recent writings in China on the need for a more accommodating policy towards its neighbours in order to pre-empt the perceived US designs to drive a wedge between China and its neighbours does not make any reference to China's pending border dispute with India.
India's policy of bilaterally settling its disputes with China and Pakistan without allowing any third party role has given confidence to the Chinese that despite the closer strategic relations between the US and India, Beijing does not have to fear any US meddling in the border dispute.