China is intensifying its global diplomatic campaign to win support ahead of an imminent international court ruling over the South China Sea disputes.
The development came yesterday as Beijing vowed greater cooperation and to proceed with multinational military exercises with Southeast Asian nations, but also called on countries to back its stance on the territorial disputes – putting many in a dilemma as they have to side with either China or the United States.
President Xi Jinping told a group of foreign ministers from Asia and the Middle East that the disputes should be resolved through negotiations between the countries involved. "We insist we should peacefully resolve the disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations with other parties directly involved," Xi said.
Beijing also said it had reached a consensus with Belarus and Pakistan – which are not claimant states – that said they respected China's stance on the issue, after separate meetings yesterday with the two nations' foreign ministers on the sidelines of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.
The State Oceanic Administration said Beijing was working on a five-year cooperation plan in the disputed waters between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Xinhua reported.
The defense ministry said China would send missile destroyer Lanzhou and special forces for a maritime security and anti-terror exercise next month with the bloc in waters between Singapore and Brunei.
Beijing is also keen to approach nations in Europe and Africa to consolidate its diplomatic base ahead of the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, in a case launched by the Philippines. China says the court has no jurisdiction in the matter.
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Beijing says it has agreed with Cambodia, Laos and Brunei that the disputes would not affect Sino-Asean ties. But Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said his country had reached no new agreement with China over the dispute, the Phnom Penh Post reported.
Mainland media reported that more than 10 nations were on China's side, and that a statement issued by China, Russia and India said the dispute should be resolved through negotiation.
But the diplomatic move has sparked concern over whether Beijing is taking the dispute to the international stage – in contrast to its stance that the matter is a bilateral issue – and may backfire.
"Countries in the region want to be able to cooperate with China and have good relations with Beijing; they don't want to face coercion or intimidation on matters of security or economic policy. Claimants would much prefer a peaceful resolution of disputes," Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre, said.
But Zhu Feng, executive director of Nanjing University's China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea, said Beijing had "no choice" as the US was also doing the same, referring to an earlier statement made by G7 foreign ministers that expressed opposition to "provocative unilateral actions" in disputed waters.
Manoranjan Mohanty, former chairman of the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi, said nations were feeling the pressure from both China and the US. The US was also pressuring Asean members over the disputes.