China is Perhaps the 'Biggest Victim' in South China Sea, Says Former Foreign Minister

Former Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing discusses China's position on South China Sea disputes at Asia Society in New York. (1 hr., 18 min.) (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

As the world awaits the ruling in an arbitration case brought by the Philippines against China over disputed claims in the South China Sea, former Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing says his country is suffering "injustice" at the hands of the United States and rival claimants. 

“China is perhaps the biggest victim of the South China Sea issue,” he said while speaking at Asia Society in New York on Thursday, reiterating his country’s stance that the disputed Spratly Islands — an archipelago also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia — belong to China based on a historical presence there.

China has been rapidly building facilities and airstrips in the Spratlys — in some cases after creating artificial islands from sediment dredged up from the sea bottom. These facilities, which could serve military functions, have added fuel to long-simmering tensions in the region.

The arbitration brought by the Philippines is being decided by an international tribunal in The Hague based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China and the Philippines are signatories. Li echoed China’s objection to the court’s “unilateral” jurisdiction over the case. "Whatever the outcome of the ruling is, China, as one of the founding members of the United Nations, one of the signatories of the 1945 charter in San Francisco to establish the UN, and one of the parties to UNCLOS, will have every reason to reject the final ruling. And we are on the side of justice.”

Li alluded to support for the arbitration by the United States, which is not a party to UNCLOS. “A certain country, since the signing of UNCLOS in 1982, up to now has never signed or ratified this convention,” he said. “But this country is trying to make an issue out of this convention.”

In recent months, the U.S. Navy has been sailing through disputed South China Sea waters in what it calls “freedom of navigation” exercises. The U.S. has also been flying A-10 “warthog” attack plane patrols over Scarborough Shoal — another area claimed by both China and the Philippines.

In his remarks, Li condemned the American military presence in the region. “Maybe this country is trying to threaten other countries in the South China Sea for its own selfish gains,” he said. “Maybe some country is trying to be a leader and assert dominance in a place far away from its home. This is hard to understand and unacceptable to us.”

“Can anybody give me an example of someone China has threatened?” he added. “When has China sent any warships around the territory of the United States?”

Li also said that peace in the Asia-Pacific was undermined by U.S. plans in South Korea to deploy its THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system, which has the capability to shoot down long-range missiles. “You claimed that the THAAD missile is targeted against the DPRK [North Korea], but I think the DPRK is only hundreds of miles away,” he said. “I don't think anybody believes that that is your real aim …everybody will know what you're up to — your secret agenda — even if you're trying to hide it.”

When asked by a reporter whether China was willing to go to war to defend what it considers a “core interest” in its South China Sea claims, Li deflected the question by saying that reporters should “uphold justice” and speak with facts. “China has often been the target of some reporters who have not upheld justice,” he said. “I don't want to see you as one of them — to impose injustice upon the peace-loving country of China and the peace-loving people of China.”

Watch the complete program in the above video.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Eric Fish

Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.