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Vice Foreign Minister of PRC Fu Ying's interview with the Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao

On 8 September 2012, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying gave an interview with the Singaporean newspaper the Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao while on an official visit to Singapore. Provided below is a transcript of the interview.

Q1. Would you like to talk a bit about the purpose of your visit to Singapore, which is close on the heels of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to China, and what have you discussed with Singapore officials?

Fu Ying: I am glad to come to Singapore soon after Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to China. I have co-chaired the China-Singapore bilateral diplomatic consultations with Permanent Secretary Bilahari Kausikan. I have also had good meetings with Foreign Minister Shanmugam and Second Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong.

During his stay in Beijing, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had extensive discussions with Chinese leaders on how to respond to the global economic challenges and how to take China-Singapore cooperation to a higher level. I was impressed by the depth and candidness of the exchanges as well as our shared common aspirations and understanding on many issues of our times.

Singapore played a unique role in China's reform and opening up process. It was Mr. Deng Xiaoping who visited Singapore in 1978, paving the ground for decades of mutually beneficial partnership between the two countries. The 18 year old Suzhou Industrial Park stands as an embodiment of this partnership. Now China-Singapore joint projects are found in many parts of the country and Singapore is still regarded as a special friend of China.

As the world around us changes fast, both China and Singapore have also been changing. The new challenge for the relationship is how to keep abreast of the times, i.e, how to identify new areas of cooperation, how to improve understanding, how to handle difficult issues and how to work on regional agendas that help to better promote peace and prosperity.

Our immediate priority now is to further advance the regional agenda by making full use of the East Asia Leaders' Meetings later in the year. I am glad to have this opportunity to compare notes with my Singapore colleagues before our senior officials meetings in Phnom Penh next week, which will prepare the ground for the leaders' meetings.

Alongside our enormous commonalities, our two countries may also see some issues differently. The important thing for us is to be fair-minded, respect and listen to each other and accommodate each other's concerns. Only in this way can we build mutual trust and keep the momentum of cooperation.

In my discussions here, I learnt more about Singapore's views of the region. I will leave Singapore confident that we will be able to forge closer understanding and cooperation for the future.

Q2: How would you characterize China-ASEAN relations? Does China stand to gain if ASEAN suffers from a lack of unity?

Fu Ying: 21 years have passed since China had its first dialogue with ASEAN. It has been an extraordinary journey of persistent and patient steps to build understanding, trust and cooperation. Now we are one of the closest strategic partners.

I remember during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, China decided not to devalue its currency despite costs to our own economy. This action not only protected the region from further sliding down but also fended off further negative impact on China. That was a good example of the mutual benefit brought by China's good neighbourly policy.

Our relationship made a major step forward with the launch of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA). From the very beginning China wanted to make sure that ASEAN should benefit more, as was openly announced by the Chinese Premier. With the introduction of the "Early Harvest" program, China-ASEAN trade grew at an average annual rate of 20%. Today, products from ASEAN countries can be found everywhere in the Chinese market. I can't help smiling when I saw fruits like durian from Southeast Asia on sale during my visit to a remote town in China.

China's ASEAN policy is centered on pursuing good-neighborliness and mutually beneficial cooperation. We have strong belief in ASEAN's central role in the region and have consistently supported ASEAN community building. For years, our assistance and cooperation programs for ASEAN have been well received and valued. China too has gained from working with ASEAN and the Chinese people have grown closer to the people of ASEAN countries. We are also pleased to see other ASEAN dialogue partners expanding relations with ASEAN.

Given the new challenges of international economic and financial uncertainties, China and ASEAN need to stay united and be prepared for possibly tougher circumstances. The coming East Asia Leaders' Meetings would offer a good opportunity for the region to initiate new ideas and launch new programs against a trying time.

I was there in Phnom Penh attending the ASEAN's PMCs in July. As far as I know, the main focus of the AMM was about ASEAN community building. China's main interest was to understand the process and design our cooperation project to dove-tail with ASEAN's priorities. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said at the China-ASEAN meeting, "As China implements its 12th Five-Year Plan, we are ready to align the priorities of China-ASEAN cooperation with those of ASEAN community building, to make the two complementary and mutually reinforcing."

I found the meetings substantive and productive. Though there was a setback regarding the Joint Communique, I'm glad that in the end, ASEAN countries mostly agreed that it was important to maintain unity by keeping with the "ASEAN way" or "East Asia way", which emphasizes the principles of consensus and accommodating comfort levels including for its dialogue partners. This forms the very basis for the success of ASEAN and its centrality in the region depends.

In China many are watching and wondering if ASEAN were to stay firm on matters of principle or become a spokesperson for certain countries. For China, we have always supported ASEAN unity and hope that ASEAN could keep its strategic vision and continue to play a leading role in the region.

Q3: Have you discussed the South China Sea issue with Singapore officials? What is China's position on the Code of Conduct in the South China? Do you agree that ASEAN should reach a consensus on the COC first before talks with China? Does China still hold the stand that talks over disputed claims be held bilaterally?

Fu Ying: The "South China Sea issue" is mainly about disputes over sovereignty and maritime rights concerning some islands and reefs of Nansha. There is no question that China has strong historical and legal evidence to support its sovereignty over the Nanshan Islands and therefore rights over the adjacent waters. China discovered the Nansha Islands as early as two thousand years ago and began to exercise jurisdiction over them more than 1,000 years ago. Problems started mainly in the 1960s and 1970s when some countries began to take islands and reefs.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is an earlier signature, is not intended to confer the right to change territorial boundaries as it clearly "recognizes the desirability of establishing, with due regard for the sovereignty of all states, a legal order for the seas and oceans".

Conscious of our responsibilities for the region as a major country, China has exercised self-restraint and committed to seek peaceful resolution of disputes through bilateral negotiations. As Mr Deng Xiaoping proposed in the 1980s, based on maintaining its sovereignty position, China would be willing to enter into joint development while shelving the disputes. This was a major decision China has made in the overall interests of regional peace and stability as well as those of ASEAN countries. Our hope is that this would be a good way to avoid conflicts and help maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Shelving disputes and pursuing common development has thus been the fundamental position for China in its dialogue with ASEAN, which led to the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). One important principle of the DOC is to resolve disputes by peaceful means through friendly consultations by the sovereign states directly concerned. The parties are also committed to refrain from conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes. This is an important underpinning for overall stability in the South China Sea.

The challenge now is that some claimants are not following the DOC. They have made repeated provocations in the South China Sea which came as a shock for the Chinese people. Back in China I am often confronted with such questions as: Why should China continue to shelve disputes and exercise restraint while other don't? What's the point of a COC when the DOC is not faithfully observed?

Since the DOC has provided for the eventual adoption of a code of conduct, we should be working towards such an objective. However, it is first of all a must that all countries concerned follow DOC and refrain from any new provocative actions. This naturally includes ASEAN members.

Secondly, COC discussion should be held among all participants as equals. It should not be one side imposing its views onto the other. Thirdly, the COC should aim to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea, rather than reinforcing some parties' claims.

Q4: Should the region be afraid over China's rise and the possibility of its riding roughshod over smaller countries in the region, given increasing signs of China's assertiveness particularly in the past two years? How will China treat its neighbors?

Fu Ying: China puts relations with its neighbours on the top of its foreign policy agenda. History shows that if a country handled relations with its neighbors poorly or even tried to weaken or bully them, it would not get the respect of its neighbors, and it would have great difficulties growing into a major power. We in China see good relations with our neighbours as a sure path leading to greater global role.

China's years of efforts to build good neighborliness and partnerships with its neighbors have paid off. We have set up all round partnerships and have never provoked confrontation. China's development has driven Asia's development and its stability has contributed to Asia's stability. Now Asia has become the fastest growing region and China's contribution to Asian growth exceeds 50%. China is the largest trading partner of most Asian countries, helping creating tens of thousands of jobs.

Is China's diplomatic posture getting more aggressive and is there a surge of nationalist sentiment among the Chinese people?

China is a country that has suffered much from aggression and humiliation in the past. The Chinese people have a strong sense of fairness and justice when it comes to international issues. You rarely hear them attacking other people or intervening in other countries' internal affairs. However, when provoked, they also react quickly and express their indignation. This is quite normal in most developing countries. Likewise the Chinese government cannot but respond to its people and take measures to safeguard rights and interests of the county.

China has a land border of 22 thousand kilometers and a coastline of over 18 thousand kilometers. It has to be able to confront traditional and non-conventional security threats as well as threats from separatism and terrorism. It is important that China endeavors to build strong national defenses to be able to safeguard its peaceful development. History shows that a strong and confident China, rather than a weak China, better serves the interest of the region as well as the world.

Q5: How does China see the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific? Do you see it as an attempt to contain China's rise and a threat to China's influence in the region? How does China propose to counter this?

Fu Ying: As far as I can see, the rise of Asia's political and economic weight in the world in recent years has made the region attractive. I am not surprised that the US, a country with strategic vision, is paying more attention to Asia. Countries in the region welcome more US input to contribute to more to regional peace and prosperity.

However, concern has been often raised in the region as well as in China, as US's stated "rebalancing" has been largely focused on military aspects. The question is: Who is the target? I noticed that the US is responding to the concerns by adding more economic and cultural elements to its activities in Asia. We hope that the hard won progress of the region be valued and advanced.

How China and the US will get along is of strategic importance for the Asia Pacific region. Though our two economies are highly interdependent, there still seem to be people in the US who worry about competition from China for world dominance. On current trends, China's GDP will continue to grow at a fairly fast rate. However, given China's population, its per capita GDP remains low and meeting the needs of 1.3 billion people remains the primary policy objective for China for the foreseeable future. You find little interest among most Chinese people in either dominating the world, of course not to be dominated either.

China has proposed to the US to build a new type of power relationship with the US to avoid repeating conflict between rising and established powers in history. The US has positively responded. The testing ground for this relationship would be in the Asia Pacific region. China and the US share extensive common interests in this region. We welcome a constructive role of the US in the region, and stand ready to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with the US on Asian affairs on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

Having said that, if some people in the US insist on seeing China as a threat or a competitor, how should China respond?

That would be a big challenge for China if it is true. China should be able to safeguard its own interest, at the same time avoiding making the mistake of being drawn into strategic competition. The US has repeatedly said that its policy is not to contain China but to work with China. It is our hope that a relationship of trust and cooperation with the US can be nurtured in this region. ASEAN has an important role to play in helping China and the US move in this direction.

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