[SINGAPORE] The US and China should look to the example of Deng Xiaoping when it comes to defusing China's territorial spats in the South China Sea, said Henry Kissinger, secretary of state during Richard Nixon's presidency.
China and the US should "remove the urgency of the debate," Mr Kissinger told reporters on Saturday in Singapore. Mr Kissinger, 91, was the architect of Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China that led to the opening of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
"Deng Xiaoping dealt with some of his problems by saying not every problem needs to be solved in the existing generation," he said of the former Chinese leader. "Let's perhaps wait for another generation but let's not make it worse." The US has assured its allies in Asia it'll back them at a time of tensions sparked by China's claims to about four- fifths of the sea, through which some of the world's busiest shipping lanes run. China has escalated pressure on some South-east Asian nations over the waters which are also contested in part by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Since coming to power in late 2012, Chinese president Xi Jinping has crafted a more assertive foreign policy as he seeks great power status alongside the US and challenges US military dominance in the region. He's announced plans to rebuild the Silk Road overland trading route to Europe and create a new maritime Silk Road across the Indian Ocean, alongside a new China-led Asia infrastructure investment bank.
Last year China parked an oil exploration rig near the Paracel Islands, whose ownership is also claimed by Vietnam, setting off violent anti-China riots in its communist neighbor. It has hastened reclamation work on reefs in the South China Sea despite protests from the Philippines.
Mr Deng's proposal meant that another generation would be better able to make decisions and negotiate once the immediate heat of disputes was reduced, according to Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. "Deng was right, not every problem can be solved and claimants and their backers shouldn't make matters worse." "If Mr Kissinger's proposal were accepted, Mr Deng's wise counsel could save China's face," he said. "Once all claimants shelved claims for joint development this would ease an irritant in US-China relations." Mr Kissinger's reference to Mr Deng's could be read as an indirect criticism of Mr Xi, according to Rosita Dellios, an associate professor of international relations at Bond University on Australia's Gold Coast.
"Better not to use an exemplar leader against whom Xi Jinping is measured," she said. "Rather, encourage the current leader in his China Dream via the patient development of the maritime Silk Road which, when accomplished, will overshadow the South China Sea squabbles."
Fresh talks between the world's two largest economies could take place in the US as early as September, when President Barack Obama and Mr Xi are scheduled to meet. China attaches "great importance" to relations with the US and wants enhanced cooperation to better manage "differences," Mr Xi told Mr Kissinger when they met in Beijing earlier this month.
Speaking on Saturday at the Boao Forum on the southern island of Hainan, Mr Xi spoke of building a "regional order" that would be more beneficial to Asia.
"China will unshakably stick to independent and autonomous peaceful diplomatic policies, stick to the peaceful development road, and stick to an open strategy of mutual beneficial and win-win, stick to the correct mindset of justice and benefits," Mr Xi said.
Any instability or war would not be in the best interests of the Chinese people, he said.
Mr Xi's efforts to expand the military are driven by a desire to modernize an army he believes can't fight and win a war due to corruption, according to Bo Zhiyue, a political science professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
"On the surface, people think that China is getting much more assertive, especially over the East China Sea and South China Sea," he said. "But Xi's policy has changed since June 2014, he has started to emphasize common interests, win-win for all." "Going around a big circle, China is actually now working very actively with neighbouring countries including Japan and Asean countries," he said, referring to the Association of South-east Asian Nations.
"So China's policy today is no longer emphasizing its core interests over others."