China has recently been on what some call a charm offensive, engaging in a flurry of friendly diplomatic adventures from East to Southeast Asia that appear to be aimed in part at cooling the rising power’s contentious territorial disputes.
The South China Sea issue could become a key topic next week during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in the Philippines, but Beijing does not want that to happen.
Manila is hosting this year's summit and ties between China and the Philippines have long been tense. Like many of China’s neighbors in the region, the Philippines has long contested Beijing’s claim to all of the South China Sea.
For now, however, the two are making nice ahead of the event.
A smiling President Benigno Aquino greeted China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, earlier this week and China’s President Xi Jinping has confirmed he will attend. The Philippines recently learned the United Nations-backed international tribunal at The Hague would hear its case. Manila has assured Beijing that the issue will not be on the agenda.
And it is not just the Philippines.
In the short space of just two weeks, China has held talks with South Korea and Japan that have “completely restored relations.” President Xi also visited Vietnam and Singapore, where he sat down with Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou – the first meeting between leaders of Taiwan and China since 1949.
China analyst Lin Chong-Pin says Xi Jinping’s recent efforts to reach out to Beijing’s neighbors show his growing confidence. Since taking office, Xi has taken on a series of projects and the diplomatic push is but the latest.
“The first one was the anti-corruption (drive), the second one was the restructuring of the economy,” Lin says. “The third one is to return to the old situation before 2009, the neighborhood policy, make the neighbors love China, make them richer, make them feel secure.”
It is not just about making China’s neighbors feel more secure and richer.
Lin, who previously served as a top official in Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, says the South China Sea is a key reason that President Xi decided to meet so suddenly with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou.
“A major reason for Xi Jinping to meet with Ma is the international legal consideration because the key documents to support a court case now rest in Taipei,” Lin said. And so far, Taiwan has been unwilling to share those documents with China.
The nine-dash line which China uses to justify its claims of almost all of the South China Sea was originally created by the Nationalist Party, which fled to Taiwan after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.
Peking University’s Jia Qingguo says Beijing needs to be a good neighbor if it wants to promote more engagement in Southeast Asia. And a key policy that China's president has been promoting since coming to office is the “One Belt, One Road” project, an effort for which stability in the South China Sea is crucial.
“The Chinese government has attached a lot of importance to this (effort). If it is to ever be successful, it needs cooperation with its neighbors,” Jia says. If the South China Sea issue is not handled correctly, he adds, it could become a stumbling block.
Although China says it does not want the issue to come up during the meetings, it is clearly a concern some will not ignore. Even if the issue does not come up in key meetings, it is likely to come up in bilateral meetings among various leaders.
On the streets in Manila, the South China Sea dispute is one of a host of issues Philippine protesters have already begun to speak out against. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, says he will bring up the issue at upcoming meetings for the Group of 20 major countries and APEC as well.
The United States also is expected to continue to assert its commitment to freedom of navigation at the meetings. Washington says it will continue to carry out freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, and announced Thursday that two B-52 strategic bombers had flown near Chinese-built islands in the disputed waters.
Analysts, however, say that with the goodwill Beijing is trying to build up, few may be willing to upset things.