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Promote Cooperation and Manage Differences in the Spirit of "He"

Promote Cooperation and Manage Differences in the Spirit of “He”

By Liu Zhenmin, Senior Official for China-ASEAN Affairs and

Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China

Peace and cooperation, pronounced the same as “He” in Chinese, are the two principles and code of conduct deeply rooted in the tradition of the Chinese culture. “He” implies the meaning of peaceful, harmonious and auspicious; it could also refer to cooperation, integration and combination. The concept of “He” is both an integral part of China’s cultural tradition and a universal philosophical value. The Chinese people love peace and harmony, and prefer cooperation over use of force or lawsuits in problem-solving. This cultural DNA affects the behavior pattern of the Chinese people as well as the way China handles its relations with its neighbors.

Over six hundred 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 and regions it visited and left behind touching stories of friendship between the Chinese and the local people. One can see that 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 the norms governing state-to-state relations, the essence of which points to the traditional Chinese philosophy of peace and cooperation. Thanks to this philosophy, China-ASEAN relations made great headway. In the 1990s, the process of China-ASEAN dialogue was formally launched. After an extraordinary period of 20-plus years, relations between China and ASEAN countries have made remarkable achievements. 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. When visiting ASEAN countries, the Chinese leadership proposed the building of a closer community of shared destiny with ASEAN and a 2+7 cooperation framework focusing on the political, economic, financial, connectivity, maritime, security and people-to-people fields.

Disputes in the South China Sea have been a challenging issue. Despite the differences between China and some Southeast Asian nations over a number of islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands and their overlapping claims on maritime rights and interests in some areas of the South China Sea, China has been committed to handling disputes properly in the spirit of peace and cooperation. For years, China has been working tirelessly for the stability and cooperation in the South China Sea. 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 the Guidelines on the follow-up actions for the implementation of the DOC and launched cooperation within the framework of the DOC. In 2013, the parties concerned held consultations on a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea (COC) within the framework of the DOC. Generally speaking, despite the existing disputes, the overall situation in the South China Sea has been stable. The freedom of navigation in this area, an important shipping route for the Asia-Pacific and the world at large, is not affected, and this has helped this region become one of the most economically dynamic regions in the world.

Following is the experience we can draw on as we, in the spirit of “He”, explore China-ASEAN cooperation and properly handle disputes, including disputes concerning the South China Sea.

First, mutual respect and accommodation forms the basis of our cooperation. The Chinese culture is highly accommodative and guided by the belief that “true gentlemen live in peace even if they do not agree with each other.” 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 system, level of development and social customs. Even in the old days, China chose to perceive its neighbors in an amicable and accommodative light and develop relations with them by sending out merchant ships rather than gunboats. China believes that in every country, people are entitled to choose a development path suited to their national conditions. China never imposes its practice or opinion on other countries, still 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 brilliant example of cooperation between developing countries.

Second, engaging and treating each other candidly holds the key to the proper settlement of our differences. We advocate the spirit of “He” not as a means to dodge disputes and differences. We are not scared of 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. Differences are not insurmountable. As long as we keep the dialogue and consultation going, eventually we will find new ideas and ways through exchanges no matter how difficult the problem is. China shares land borders with 14 countries totaling 22,000 kilometers. Thanks to the concerted efforts of China and the countries concerned, a total length of over 20,000 kilometers of Chinese borders with 12 neighbors have been demarcated. Imagine the amount of patience and resolve that went into this formidable endeavor! The success of such an endeavor involves the efforts of all parties. 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. It could even get the situation out of control and eventually jeopardize the interests of all countries in the region.

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 throughout the world has shown that no individuals or nations could advance and keep up with the world by shutting themselves 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. Only a long-term perspective can lead to mutually beneficial cooperation in a real sense. When China and ASEAN were hit by the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and the 2008 global financial crisis, which originated in the United States and Europe, it was cooperation that got us through the crises and challenges and made regional economic growth and prosperity possible. Under the current circumstances, we need to stay committed to cooperation and work to expand, diversify and deepen our cooperation and improve its efficiency so that the economy of our region will benefit from it. With cooperation, we will rise above differences, build consensus, enhance mutual trust and create a better future for the countries and people of this region.

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.

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