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South China Sea needs Asian-led forum to tackle frictions   2012-05-31 13:45:00

The Shangri-La Dialogue, which has become the key regional forum for discussing important defense and security concerns, will convene Friday in Singapore. The US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta will attend the dialogue and offer his ideas on the South China Sea issues.

The situation on the South China Sea has become disturbing. China appears passive facing the interference of the superpower and the offensive attitude held by the neighboring countries.

In fact, since the roots of the troublesome situation have been quite clear, the key point on this issue is to figure out the solution. Though there're disputes on whether to solve the South China Sea issue diplomatically or through a military method among the Chinese people, I believe that an alternative option is worth consideration.

When faced with the US secretly supporting small nations to take a tough stand toward China, it is difficult for China to react. China's consistent stand on the South China Sea issue is to refuse to allow other countries to become involved with bilateral issues.

There are both strengths and weaknesses in this policy. Indeed, holding bilateral negotiations with related countries separately effectively avoid pressure from a combination of related nations. However, sticking to the bilateral stand also means giving up the space and benefits brought by a multilateral route. As a result, other nations have seized the initiative.

Former British prime minister Winston Churchill once said, "It's better to quarrel than to fight." China is seen as bullying neighboring countries, though the real circumstances at the moment are completely opposite. In addition, bilateral negotiations are a closed-door diplomatic method. Without proof from a third party, they will not influence the opinion of the international community.

Currently, China doesn't have the initiative in the Asia-Pacific security area. In practice, the US still has the leading role. Nowadays, the most influential forum in the Asia-Pacific region is the Shangri-La Dialogue led by the US and the UK. I have attended it often. It's a shame that though Chinese issues have been discussed frequently, there is rarely any creative idea.

China should initiate a regional multilateral ocean security dialogue. The future forum should not be limited to sensitive discussions, such as the South China Sea issue, but become an open forum referring to subjects including the Diaoyu Islands, and the South Kuril Islands, known by Japan as the Northern Territories.

The model of the Shangri-La Dialogue, sponsored by the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, is quite applicable. It's a non-official institute with a clear officially-supported background that attracts official representatives and scholars from all the participant nations.

A closed-door seminar can be organized for officials to exchange ideas on sensitive issues. In fact, this model is similar to the multilateral format through which each topic can be discussed without the restriction of international laws and the policy responsibility.

When it comes to the South China Sea issue, since foreign powers shouldn't interpose on the territorial water disputes of East Asia, the future forum will be able to expel those "unrelated countries" from the closed-door seminars, or at most qualify those countries like the US and EU member states as "observers."

East Asian countries should take the initiative in the South China Sea, and the disputing countries should be able to reveal all the opinions to each other and accept inspection from the international community in a multilateral, peaceful atmosphere.

Such a forum will not only present the sincerity of China to settle the dispute, but also bring moral deterrent to the countries aiming to make regional disputes and their backers. In order to smoothly hold such an open forum for negotiation, there should be no war in East Asia.

After all, China and its neighboring countries are not opponents. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. This can be the best plan, or at least an effective stalling tactic.

source : Global Times     editor:: Ma Ting
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