SHANGHAI -- Chinese media on Wednesday took a more conciliatory line on the row with the United States over disputed islands in the South China Sea, following heightened tensions, which state media warned earlier this week could lead to a war in the region. Beijing had previously reacted angrily, after the U.S. sent aircraft and naval vessels to the area, saying it wanted to ensure freedom of shipping, and on Tuesday issued a military white paper that accused the U.S. of “meddling” in the region -- and also stressed China’s plans to expand the global reach of its navy and its role in guaranteeing open seas.
On Wednesday however, the official Global Times newspaper, which published the hawkish warnings of conflict earlier in the week, ran a commentary stressing that the new white paper was actually designed to make China’s military more transparent, and expressing the hope that this would promote communication with the U.S. It also said that China was a “militarily cautious and restrained” nation -- suggesting that there had been domestic calls for Beijing to expand the role of its navy for three decades, yet it had only begun doing so in the past few years.
And though it acknowledged that growth in China’s defense spending in recent years -- which has raised concerns in the U.S. -- was “glaring,” it argued that “China’s military capability has not exceeded the minimum security demands of the second biggest economy in the world.” The commentary said “all rising powers need space” -- but added that, unlike other emerging nations in the past, China was “trying hard to avoid a zero-sum game.” It said Beijing was “well aware that if the expansion of China squeezes the strategic space of others,” the nation would not be able to achieve a “peaceful rise” -- its officially stated objective. It said that China must therefore “realize strategic breakthroughs through win-win solutions.”
The article suggested, however, that achieving such solutions depended on the attitude of the U.S., and of Japan, with which China has rivalries over islands in the East China Sea. It said there was “no proof” that China’s construction in the South China Sea was “aimed at excluding U.S. influence from the region” -- but it said that the U.S. had become “hopping mad” over the issue, and added that “such strategic thinking” would leave the two nations’ bilateral relationship in the twenty-first century “shrouded in shadow.”
Beijing is clearly not compromising on its key position that the islands are part of its territory: on Tuesday it broke ground on two lighthouses in the region -- and China's foreign ministry said earlier this week that the nation would “continue to build other civilian facilities on relevant maritime features of the Nansha Islands” (as they are known in Chinese). However, officials were at pains to stress that the construction was not an escalation, but was “normal economic activity,” and state media on Wednesday published an interview with a senior foreign ministry official, who reiterated that none of the facilities China is constructing in the region are for military use.
U.S. officials have said that an airstrip on one of the reclaimed islands could be used for military purposes -- however, Ouyang Yujing, director general of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs at China’s foreign ministry, said the facilities currently under construction, including the new lighthouses, were designed to "provide better services for the ships of China, its neighbors and other countries whose ships and boats pass through the South China Sea." He told the China Daily they would help with “navigation safety" as well as "search and rescue, disaster prevention, ecological conservation and meteorological observation." And he said they would not undermine other countries’ freedom of navigation, but would rather “facilitate joint response to challenges.”
Beijing has defended its actions not only by insisting on its sovereignty over the reefs and islets concerned, but also by stressing that other countries -- notably Vietnam and the Philippines -- have built in the disputed region without arousing the anger of the U.S. Chinese media have published pictures they say show a Vietnamese construction project of 86,000 square meters. And while Beijing has been criticized for building bigger projects, Ouyang said the construction work being carried out was “at a pace and on scale befitting China’s international responsibilities and obligations.”
However he also reiterated China’s position that other nations’ construction projects in the region are illegal -- and urged them to withdraw from the area.
Observers said that while these remarks, and the Global Times commentary, in no way constituted a climb-down, they may have been designed to address a sense among some experts in both China and the U.S. that recent tough-talking from officials on both sides had escalated the situation to a point where it could slip out of control. On Wednesday Jin Yongming, head of the Ocean Strategy Studies Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences called for talks between China and the U.S. on the issue in order to “avoid misjudgments.”