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Major General Luo Yuan on China’s Neighboring Security Environment

[Editor’s Note: The following is a translation of excerpts from an interview with Major General Luo Yuan, that was conducted by Nan Fang Du Shi Bao (Nanfang Metropolis News), a newspaper affiliated with the Guangdong Provincial Government.

General Luo, Deputy Secretary-General of the China Society of Military Sciences, is a high profile military scholar specializing in Sino-U.S. relations. Although not an official spokesperson, his views often echo the Party line. He offers his candid position on a number of strategic issues. In his personal understanding, China has three core interests: 1) China will never allow its socialist system under Party rule to be overthrown; 2) China must protect its territorial integrity; and 3) China will not allow any damage to the significant economic interests that sustain China’s development. From the significance the Chinese place on the order in a list, it is clear that Luo gives Party rule a higher priority than China’s territorial integrity.] [1]

In the resolution that the 5th Plenum of the 17th Party Congress passed, “The CCP Central Committee’s Recommendation for Finalizing the 12th Five-Year-Plan for Economic and Social Development,” (the Party) decided that, over the next five years, we need to proactively create a favorable international environment for China. A Nanfang Metropolis News reporter (N) interviewed General Luo Yuan (L), a military scholar and a deputy secretary general of the China Society for Military Sciences, about issues related to this topic.

N: In recent years, our country has been involved in several conflicts with other countries about issues related to the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. In your opinion, what are China’s main economic interests in the oceans?

L: In my opinion, China’s main maritime interests include five concerns: 1) that our ocean sovereignty not be challenged; 2) that our rights in specific economic zones and the continental shelf, as granted by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, be fully honored; 3) that China has mining rights and the right to conduct scientific research in the oceans; 4) that ocean traffic security be protected. In addition, we must ensure normal and lawful operations of Chinese vessels’ and ocean platforms. China is a large country. In the past, we focused on land and ignored the oceans. We should change that.

N: China stresses ocean development. Does it mean that, in the next five years, China will have more friction with other countries?

L: Friction is inevitable. The key is how to resolve it. On the South China Sea problem, in 2002, we signed the “Declaration on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.” It is the blueprint for resolving future conflicts in the South Sea; it defines the fundamental principles. As long as all the countries involved are serious about following the Declaration, many issues can be resolved.

N: Traditionally, China has been friendly and reserved on ocean issues. Will China maintain the same attitude over the next five years?

L: China’s overall national strength has been growing rapidly. Its national interests and international influence are expanding. Therefore, China should have a foreign policy and an ocean strategy that matches its status. People often say: “No diplomacy for a weak nation.” Although China is not exactly a superpower, it is by no means a weak nation; China is a big country that deserves its own diplomatic style. China should be assertive, not too aggressive and not too humble. We do not want to be the world’s leader, nor do we always lag behind. We do not want to pick a fight, nor do we shy away from trouble. We should follow (Deng Xiaoping’s policy) “hide our capabilities and bide our time,” and (Jiang Zemin’s policy) “do something” at the same time. We make no concessions on national sovereignty and our core interests, and we strike our enemies hard when necessary. We should be flexible on issues that are not core interests, and bargain with other countries for a win-win solution. Personally, I believe that, during the 12th Five-Year-Plan period, with its changing national strength and security environment, China’s diplomatic policy and ocean strategy will evolve with the times. There will be new ways of thinking.

N: Recently, the United States noticed that China considered the South Sea issue a core national interest. Subsequently, the U.S. announced that freedom of the seas in the South China Sea was also in America’s national interest. It seems that the U.S. and China are in direct conflict.

L: On the issue of the South China Sea, the U.S. is intentionally confusing the matter. China’s dispute with the U.S. is completely different from our dispute with the ASEAN countries. Our argument with the U.S. is about freedom of the sea; and our issue with the ASEAN countries is the ownership of certain islands. The former is an ocean rights issue. The latter is one of territorial sovereignty. They are two separate issues.

In 1982, the UN issued the “Convention on the Law of Oceans.” China and other ASEAN countries all signed on to the Convention. However, the U.S. is a pragmatic country. It agrees to conventions according to its interests and forces others to follow suit, but it would not join anything that hurt its own interests. Following that logic, the U.S. did not sign the Convention.

The U.S. considers China’s maritime economic zone international waters, which the U.S. therefore has the right to enter. A U.S. military surveillance airplane and a Navy surveillance ship entering our maritime economic zone resulted in the 2001 plane collision (near Hainan Island) and last year’s Impeccable Incident. China defended its rights using the UN Convention, but the U.S. thought that China interfered with its freedom of the seas. That caused a major conflict. I believe America’s hegemony was the entire cause of these incidents.

On the South China Sea dispute, we are not arguing with all ten ASEAN countries. In fact, we have always had a good relationship with ASEAN countries. We often talk about the two wings that enabled China’s economy to take off: one was ASEAN, and the other was the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The U.S. now intends to create a rift between China and ASEAN and has internationalized the South Sea issue.

N: The U.S. emphasized its relationship with ASEAN and took part in the East Asia Summit. It had a joint military exercise with South Korea and was actively involved in the Diaoyu Island (Senkaku) crisis. How do you look at these incidents?

L: The U.S. declared its plan to return to the Asia-Pacific region. Obama said that he was the president of the Asia-Pacific region. Hilary Clinton also talked about the U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region. It is clear that the U.S. is tweaking its strategy. I think the U.S. is still using a dual-headed-eagle policy. It stares at both Europe and the Asia-Pacific region at the same time. It will never abandon the lucrative European zone. But the U.S. strategic focus has begun to move to the Asia-Pacific region.

N: Some people think that the U.S. is afraid of China’s rapid development.

L: That is probably true. The West has not seen anything like China’s development. It takes time and facts to validate (our intention). We claimed to pose no threat to any country. But the West has its doubts, especially people with a Cold War mentality. They look at China through colored glasses and always find faults. In my view, China is facing a “Rising Power Syndrome.” We have to deal with many problems during our ascension. For example, we need to ease our deepening and highly publicized domestic conflicts, resolve economic polarity, adopt anti-graft practices, and reform our government structures. To create a favorable international environment, we need other countries’ cooperation, support, and understanding. Especially on those limited to strategic commodities and energy, we need to figure out how to explore, utilize, and distribute with political skill and wisdom.

As China deals with the “Rising Power Syndrome,” our neighbors will have to make some psychological adjustments. In their view, when powerful nations rose in history, it meant wars and armed robbery. They have not seen a peaceful ascension (of a world power). In the meantime, they also have the wrong notion about our socialist system. Because the Communist Party has been demonized for so long, many countries exposed to the negative propaganda have a hostile attitude toward China. In addition, the U.S. is determined to remain Number One in the world. However, China is now Number Two in terms of GDP, and Number Two is an awkward position. Number One regularly suppresses Number Two. Number Three is jealous of Number Two. China thus faces a very complex environment.

N: How do you define China’s core interests?

L: In my personal view, China has three core interests: 1) China will never allow its political institutions to be overthrown; 2) China will not allow any violations of its To prevent any violations of its territorial sovereignty; 3) China will not allow any damage to its significant economic interests that sustain its development.

[1] Southern Metropolis Daily, November 4, 2010