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Commentary: Arbitration court ruling prompts China to make new moves

The recent ruling of the International Court of Arbitration that rejected China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea dealt a serious blow to Beijing. While President Xi Jinping refuses to accept the court ruling, he is also making new moves, which have brought subtle changes to China’s relationships with the U.S. and Japan.


A week after the July 12 ruling in The Hague, Chief of U.S. Naval Operations John Richardson was in Qingdao in the Chinese province of Shandong to tour the command center of the Chinese North Sea Fleet. “The U.S. Navy continues to carry out military actions in accordance with law across the globe, including in the South China Sea,” he said. This was a warning to China, which declared it will continue the construction of facilities on reefs.  


Nonetheless, China let Richardson tour the country’s only aircraft carrier, “Liaoning,” when he was in Qingdao. Worthy of attention was that China disclosed the interior of the vessel, including an aircraft hangar and a flight deck. For the admiral, assessing the level of China’s technological prowess was an easy task. China gambled on this to convey the message “China wants to avoid conflict with the U.S.”


On July 25, Xi met with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice in Beijing. On the following day, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was due to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Laos. During his meeting with the aide to the U.S. president, Xi noted that “China has no intention of challenging the exiting international order and protocols,” suggesting a desire for warmer relations.   


Xi also aimed to create an atmosphere of “detente” in an attempt to make the G20 summit, which China will host in Hangzhou in September, a big success.


When the arbitration court issued the ruling on July 12, China also approached Japan. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang adjusted his schedule so he could meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when they attended the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Mongolia. During prior negotiations, the Chinese side did not resort to using the common tactic of “no meeting unless prior conditions are met.”


On July 15, Abe and Li met for the first time in eight months. The meeting was arranged smoothly. The rift between the two remained open over the South China Sea issue, but they refrained from disclosing the details of their talks. Prior to this meeting, Li also met with the leaders of Cambodia and other countries, who held the key in the South China Sea issue, in an attempt to drum up support ahead of ASEAN ministerial talks in Laos. The following week, China accommodated a visit by Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Shinsuke Sugiyama to Beijing.


China’s basic stance toward Japan is that “we value economic and other exchanges with Japan, but we do not want to deal with a country that is tough on us.” But this attitude has been tweaked of late. Why? That China completely lost in the South China Sea case has narrowed its options and it wants to avoid being isolated from the rest of the world. Under such circumstances, it has opted for engaging with its neighbors through “smile diplomacy” so it can save face.


The landslide victory that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito Party clinched in the recent House of Councillors election has also affected China’s attitude. Now that the Abe government stands on a solid foundation, constitutional revision – an issue of concern to China – may become a reality. This means that the Chinese leadership can no longer defy Tokyo. “No matter what it says, China deals with other countries in accordance with their national strength,” said a China-savvy diplomat in an Asian country. “This is because China is an advocate of power.” On July 25, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida met in Laos.


When Wang met with Kishida in Beijing at the end of April, he blatantly criticized Japan. In the recent round of talks, however, he stuck to the basic principle on the issue of the South China Sea, but expressed a positive stance for the first time toward arranging summit talks between Japan, China, and South Korea in Japan by the end of the year. He also noted that China is willing to put its bilateral maritime and air liaison mechanism with Japan into operation.


If a three-party meeting among the foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea is realized, Wang will make his first visit to Japan as China’s Foreign Minister. Whether Abe and Xi will meet for summit talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit for the first time in a year and half is also drawing much attention. But China went to the length of preventing a series of international meetings from referring to the court ruling in their statements. It has been conducting military exercises in the South China Sea. When it comes to sovereignty, it makes no concessions.


During his overseas tours, Xi told his aides that “Changing the existing international order is no easy task.” He mentioned this right after his proposed vision of building a new relationship between the superpowers” was turned down by the Obama administration. He has recently told Rice that “China has no intention of challenging the exiting international order and protocols.” Since China has already been flouting international law, he took this reconciliatory approach just for expediency.


Xi advocates the “dream of revitalization of the Chinese people.” This thought reflects his opposition to the existing U.S.-led international order. With maritime tensions expected to linger down the road, Japan must work closely with other countries to perseveringly persuade China to resolve conflicts based on the international law. (Slightly abridged)

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