The manner in which China reacted to the recent Group of Seven (G-7) summit is another evidence that it has become increasingly assertive not only in its claims and actions in the South China Sea but also in its political and media battle over this disputed sea.
The leaders of the G-7 advanced economies — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – held their annual summit in Ise-Shima Summit, Japan on May 26-27. The President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission also attended the group’s summit.
Ahead and during this two-day summit, China’s officials and state media warned the G-7 members and Japan in particular not to “meddle” in the South China Sea disputes and “exacerbate” regional tensions and accused them of “hyping up the South China Sea for personal gain.”
China also expressed its strong dissatisfaction with the summit’s final statement in which the G-7 leaders said they “are concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas, and emphasize the fundamental importance of peaceful management and settlement of disputes.”
The question raised is whether such a vicious broadside against the G7 nations and Japan, the summit host, in particular is convinced and justified.
‘Meddling’ in the South China Sea disputes
One of Chinese officials and media’s arguments is that the G-7 should focus on economy, which is “its own duties,” rather than “point fingers at something outside its portfolio,” such as the East and South China Sea disputes.
Though it was originally conceived in the mid-1970s to deal with the world’s key economic matters, the G-7 has long and strongly focused on global security issues. The group’s important role in addressing major international conflicts is often recognized.
Thus, it is quite natural for the 2016 summit to consider key regional and global security issues – such as refugee crisis, terrorism, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Ukraine/Russia.
Against this backdrop, their concern and discussion about the current situation in the East and South China Seas is completely appropriate. Japan is a country directly involved in the East China Sea disputes.
None of its members is a party directly involved in the South China Sea disputes. Yet, the G-7’s concern about the South China Sea issue is understandable. It is even paramount considering the economic and geo-strategic importance of the South China Sea, which is one of the world’s busiest and most important sea lanes, and rising tensions in this disputed water.
It is also very relevant for the G-7 Ise-Shima Summit, which was the first G-7 summit to be convened in Asia since 2008, to talk about the issue. The South China Sea issue is probably the biggest security challenge the region is facing.
Though it seems too gloomy to predict that “the next world war will be in the South China Sea”, escalations in this disputed sea are real and worrying. They can result in an armed conflict in the region, with far-reaching global consequences.
Chinese officials and media’s rhetoric that the South China Sea issue had “nothing to do” with the G-7 or any of its members is also very ironic because Beijing has also staunchly sought to bring in complete “outsiders” to support its South China Sea position.
These include faraway African countries, e.g. Burundi and Mozambique, which China praised for backing its rejection of the arbitration case that the Philippines has brought against it.
‘Hyping up’ the South China Sea issue
China’s accusation of Japan’s “hyping up” of the South China Sea issue is another noteworthy point.
Given geopolitical rivalry and historical mistrust between the two Asian powers, China’s suspicion of Japan’s influence on the G-7’s position vis-à-vis the East and South China Seas is unsurprising.
However, the argument that Japan took advantage of its G-7 summit host status to fan “the flame of tensions” or to “draw more “allies and sympathizers” to isolate China on this issue” is exaggerated and unjustified.
Though it was discussed at the summit, unlike the other geopolitical issues, e.g. the Middle East, Ukraine and North Korea, maritime security in the East and South China Sea was not explicitly listed in the Ise-Shima Summit’s main agenda.
For Xinhua, China’s official mouthpiece, “the very existence of the chapter” on maritime security in the summit’s final statement “has exposed Japan’s self-serving calculation in instigating the G-7 into supporting Tokyo’s own interests.” In fact, that “chapter” is a very short section, with only 160 words.
Most significantly, it is not the first time that the G-7 meetings discussed the situation in the East and South China Seas and included it in their statements.
The final statement of the G-7 summit in Schloss Elmau, Germany in June 2015 included a section on the issue, in which the G-7 leaders stressed that they “strongly oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or force, as well as any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo, such as large scale land reclamation”.
At their meeting in Lübeck, Germany in April 2015, G-7 foreign ministers issued a “declaration on maritime security,” which stated that they “continue to observe the situation in the East and South China Seas and are concerned by any unilateral actions, such as large scale land reclamation, which change the status quo and increase tensions.”
The declaration of the G-7 summit in Brussels, Belgium in June 2014 also contained a 160-word paragraph on “maritime navigation and aviation.” In this, the group’s leaders said they were “deeply concerned by tensions in the East and South China Sea” and opposed “any unilateral attempt by any party to assert its territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force.”
The language chosen by the Brussels Summit was clearly more explicit and robust than that adopted by the Ise-Shima Summit.
‘Escalating’ regional tensions
Another notable, if not ironic, rhetoric by Chinese officials and state media is that the G-7’s “meddling” in the South China Sea issue “is obviously provocative to China and also likely to cause an escalation of regional tension.” Because of this, Beijing does not want “to see discussions or actions that might exacerbate tensions in the region.”
Judging by their statement, the G-7 leaders did not say anything that would or might escalate regional tensions. Instead, what they wanted to emphasize was their “commitment to maintaining a rules-based maritime order” as per international law and the “importance of states’ making and clarifying their claims based on international law, refraining from unilateral actions which could increase tensions and not using force or coercion in trying to drive their claims, and seeking to settle disputes by peaceful means including through juridical procedures.”
Any neutral, who wants a peaceful and rules-based maritime order in the South China Sea, probably supports this statement.
It is also worth pointing out that, like the G-7’s previous ones and many other similar remarks and statements by other countries, this declaration did not name China.
Why was China angry with the G-7’s declaration whereas other South China Sea claimant states did not object to it? Why do international media, many other countries and China’s officials and media know that such a statement was aimed at China even it does not mention the country by name?
Is it because China’s excessive claim and aggressive posture in the South China Sea and its refusal to make and clarify its maritime claims based on international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea?
While acknowledging that other factors and countries are somehow involved, China’s growing ferociousness in the South China Sea is widely seen as the major factor contributing to regional tensions.
Indeed, it can be said that it is not the G-7’s discussions and actions or anything else, but rather China’s behaviors in the South China Sea, including its recent large-scale reclamation works and militarization of disputed islands, that have exacerbated tensions in the region.
Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers, and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.