China's White Paper on National Defence In The New Era could serve to temper the alarm over its growing presence in the South China Sea. It is a happy coincidence that the paper, released last Wednesday, comes as security consultations get under way at the Asean meetings in Bangkok today. China describes the situation in the South China Sea as generally stable and improving as regional countries "are properly managing risks and differences". It also says Beijing is committed to resolving disputes through negotiations, upholding freedom of navigation and overflights, and safeguarding the security of sea lines of communication. These assurances are welcome as China and Asean fine-tune their concurrence on a single draft negotiating text to evolve a Code of Conduct to avoid clashes in the South China Sea.
China's White Paper, however, also signposts potential for trouble. It depicts the United States as the provocative actor in the region, noting that it is adding complexity to security by strengthening its military alliances, deployments and interventions in the Asia-Pacific. China's response has been to assert its national sovereignty to build infrastructure, deploy weaponry and conduct patrols in the disputed territories of the South China Sea. The deepening rivalry with the US is the unmistakable feature in what is China's first White Paper on defence since President Xi Jinping initiated major military reforms in 2015.