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As China rises, the UK Ambassador to Washington said his country and other European nations are as concerned as the U.S. about growing tensions in the South and East China Seas.  

british ambassador

“International prosperity depends as much on East Asia’s security, stability and freedom of navigation as on the region’s economic success,” Sir Peter Westmacott, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, said in a luncheon keynote address at USIP during a daylong conference on April 25 entitled  “China’s Roles in the World.”

The conference, which explored China’s roles as a rule maker, a rule breaker and a partner, was co-hosted with Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic Studies.

Even as China demonstrates its territorial assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region, it has cooperated on joint missions such as countering piracy in the Gulf of Aden and providing humanitarian relief even to its regional rival, the Philippines.

Susan Lawrence of the U.S. Congressional Research Service, noted during one panel discussion that in the last few years, many China observers have remarked on “an apparent gradual shift in China’s attitude towards the international system.” The analysts have observed that China appears to be seeking to move cautiously beyond its focus on domestic development to become more active in international affairs. Lawrence cited State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s speech in November indicating China’s desire to “pursue incremental progress in adjusting and reforming the international system.”

Westmacott commended China’s increasing seriousness about its role as an international leader, citing its involvement as a key participant in the Iran nuclear negotiations and in efforts to resolve the conflict in South Sudan.

But China’s maritime and territorial disputes -- involving the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia in the South China Sea, and challenging Japan in the East China Sea – are raising alarms in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, Westmacott said.

China’s neighbors have expressed fears that its increasing military capabilities and a lack of transparency about how those weapons and strategies might be used signal a greater assertiveness, Westmacott said.

The best way to deal with these issues is “to engage frankly and constructively,” he said. All sides need to “build mutual trust, work for regional stability and settle disputes in accordance with international law.”

Westmacott cited U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns from an April 8 speech at the Asia Society, in which he noted that “all countries, big and small, stand to lose if rules are devalued, dialogue breaks down, misreading and misinterpretations multiply and fear and tensions spiral.”

Both the U.S. and the UK want to see a strengthened, rules-based international system, Westmacott said.  This “means working with China to shape the international order, both bilaterally and through institutions like the U.N., the WTO and the IMF,” he said.

Westmacott quoted Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai’s comments made in an April 10 speech at USIP that no country can confront global challenges alone, and that cooperating in “areas where we agree helps deal with areas where we differ.”

The British envoy urged China to strengthen its role as a global leader by increasing its involvement on issues of international significance, such as climate change and cyber security.

“The world needs China to act on the environment, just as we need other big emitters like the United States and the European Union to act,” Westmacott said. China, the U.S. and the EU are the three largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and achieving significant progress requires agreement on a global deal, he said.

Westmacott reaffirmed the worry and fear among most countries of the world that cyber-security breaches and theft of intellectual property will stunt global prosperity. He argued that cyber-security is crucial for all sides and could be used by global leaders as a basis for mutually beneficial cooperation and progress in cyberspace.

Britain and America can work together with China, stated Westmacott. “We must simply proceed with pragmatism and deliberation.” 

Maral Noori is a senior program assistant for Asia-Pacific programs at USIP.

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