Peace and cooperation, pronounced "He" in Chinese, is a principle and code of conduct deeply rooted in the traditions of the Chinese culture. "He" implies peaceful, harmonious and auspicious; it can also refer to cooperation, integration and combination.
Over 600 years ago, Zheng He, a Chinese navigator, made seven expeditions to the western seas with a fleet which was then the world’s strongest. Unlike Western colonists who engaged in expansion and plunder, Zheng He’s fleet brought Chinese silk, porcelain and tea to the countries it visited and left behind touching stories of friendship between the Chinese and locals. The concept of “He” featured prominently in this episode of history.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has upheld the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence as norms governing state-to-state relations. Thanks to this philosophy, China-Asean relations have made great headway. The 1990s saw the formal launch of the China-Asean dialogue and the 20-plus years since have seen remarkable achievements made in relations between China and Asean countries. In 2003, China became Asean’s first dialogue partner to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, and a strategic partnership for peace and prosperity was established between the two sides. In January 2010, the China-Asean FTA was established. The year 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of China-Asean Strategic Partnership. On visits to Asean countries, the Chinese leadership proposed building a closer community and shared destiny with Asean and a 2+7 cooperation framework focusing on the political, economic, financial, connectivity, maritime, security and people-to-people spheres.
Disputes over territory in the South China Sea have been a challenging issue, but China is committed to handling them in the spirit of peace and cooperation. In 2002, China and Asean countries signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). In 2011, the relevant parties reached consensus on guidelines for follow-up actions for the implementation of the DOC and launched a cooperation within the framework of the DOC. In 2013, the parties concerned held consultations on a “code of conduct” (COC) in the South China Sea within the framework of the DOC. Generally speaking, despite the existing disputes, the overall situation in the South China Sea has been stable, allowing freedom of navigation that has helped it become one of the most economically dynamic regions in the world.
Drawing on the spirit of “He” will aid China-Asean cooperation and enable us to handle disputes properly.
First, mutual respect and accommodation forms the basis of our cooperation. The Chinese people believe that all countries and nations have the right to choose their own social systems, development paths, ways of doing things and social customs and that they should live in peace and engage each other despite difference in social systems, level of development and social customs. Even in the old days, China chose to perceive its neighbours in an amicable and accommodative light and develop relations with them by sending out merchant ships rather than gunboats. China never imposes its practice or opinions on other countries; even less does it attempt to grab the interests of other countries by use or threat of force. The pursuit of peaceful development and co-existence is by no means an act of expediency, but a strategic choice made by the Chinese nation in light of its long-term interests, as well as a fundamental principle underpinning the Chinese culture. It is the very reason behind the fact that China’s cooperation with Asean countries transcends their difference in history, culture and social system and has become a shining example of cooperation between developing countries.
Second, engaging and treating each other candidly is the key to proper settlement of our differences. We advocate the spirit of “He” not as a means to dodge disputes and differences. We believe the important thing is to understand each other better through direct communication and move forward step by step to find a proper solution on the basis of mutual understanding. Pending the settlement of a dispute, parties need to demonstrate maximum restraint and manage their differences through bilateral consultations. If anyone should rather recklessly stick to its own way of doing things, reject dialogue and communication or even try to bring external players into the picture, it is not only unhelpful but also likely to escalate tensions and undermine peace and cooperation between countries concerned.
Third, mutual benefit and harmonious development is the shared goal of our cooperation. The ultimate goal of advocating the spirit of “He” does not stop at coexistence and engagement. It is about achieving common development through harmonious coexistence and cooperation. History has shown that no nation can advance by shutting itself off from the outside world. Cooperation is not about who eats up whom or who follows whom. It is about seeing the bigger picture and the long-term interests instead of just one’s own immediate interests. When China and Asean were hit by the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and then the global financial crisis in 2008, it was cooperation that got us through the crises and challenges and made regional economic growth and prosperity possible.
I am convinced that as long as we are committed to peace, cooperation and mutual benefit, we will overcome difficulties, intensify our cooperation and make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation and this region a beautiful home shared by us all.
Liu Zhenmin is China’s senior official for China-Asean affairs and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs.