21 February 2019
A Chinese soldier (right) fights alongside a North Korean soldier during the Korean war, in which both countries took on UN forces. Photo:
A Chinese soldier (right) fights alongside a North Korean soldier during the Korean war, in which both countries took on UN forces. Photo:

China suffers another setback with Asean

Despite strong opposition from China, Asean foreign ministers vigorously discussed the South China Sea at their annual meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week, together with foreign ministers of the United States, Japan and other countries.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, announced that the country has finished island reclamation in disputed waters.

However, what this means is that China will now move to the next stage, of building infrastructure on these artificial islands, including military facilities.

Little wonder, then, that the Chinese official rejected an American proposal first made last year to stop reclamation, stop construction of facilities and stop militarization.

Instead, Mr. Wang proposed three initiatives of his own.

The proposals, if accepted, would effectively isolate the Philippines within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and keep the United States out of South China Sea issues.

First, he said, countries in Southeast Asia should pledge to implement a nonbinding agreement reached in 2002 regarding conduct in the South China Sea.

Since China has charged that the Philippines violated the agreement by bringing a case against it in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, this initiative was evidently aimed, at least in part, at Manila.

Second, the foreign minister said “countries outside the region” should pledge not to take actions that may cause tension and complexity in the region, a move apparently aimed at the US and also Japan.

The third initiative was that countries pledge to exercise and safeguard freedom of navigation in accordance with international law.

Since China’s interpretation of international law is markedly different from that of other countries, this initiative is unlikely to be fruitful.

In any event, China not only failed to head off discussion of the South China Sea but also was chagrined when Asean foreign ministers issued a joint communiqué that repeated the substance of a chairman’s statement in April in which the regional bloc’s 10 heads of state, without naming China, indicated that the country had “eroded trust and confidence” as a result of its land reclamation and “may undermine peace, security and stability”.

The foreign ministers’ communiqué used almost identical language, adding that land reclamations had “increased tensions” as well.

This flies in the face of the Chinese position, which is that South China Sea tensions are being “hyped” by the US in an attempt to contain China.

China’s sticks-and-carrots policy toward Asean is clearly not working.

At the root of the problem is a radically different approach to international law.

All parties cite international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994, but China alone insists on “respect for historical facts” — when international law does not support its position.

China’s recitation of historical facts is often selective.

Thus, the official Xinhua news agency quoted Mr. Wang last week as referring to the US as “our ally” when speaking of events in the 1940s, before the People’s Republic of China existed.

While meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Mr. Wang also asserted that “the international order and system with the United Nations as the core was established with the joint efforts of China, the United States and other countries”.

It is ironic that the Communists should claim credit for helping to establish the UN.

In fact, the Chinese government that helped to establish the UN was that of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, which the Communists dubbed a “feudal, comprador, fascist dictatorship”.

Similarly, Beijing is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan, again conveniently ignoring the fact that it was the Kuomintang government that won the war with Japan, not the Communists.

The People’s Republic of China was not proclaimed by the Communist Party until 1949, and, the following year, it supported North Korea in its invasion of South Korea and sent troops to fight American and other forces fighting under the UN flag in Korea.

In fact, Beijing was effectively at war with the UN from 1950 until 1953, when a truce was signed.

To this day, the Communist Party of China calls the Korean war the “war to resist US aggression and aid Korea”, painting the US, which was implementing a UN Security Council resolution, as the aggressor and North Korea as the victim.

Even though Beijing now has diplomatic relations with Seoul, the Chinese Communist government has never apologized for assisting and participating in the North Korean invasion of the South, with Chinese troops capturing the South Korean capital.

If Beijing now wants to discuss history, there is indeed much to talk about.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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