Beijing (China Daily/ANN) - Since 2010, a series of conflicts and disputes arising from some countries' claims to China's territory in the South China Sea have affected China's image in Southeast Asia. China's hard-won image as a responsible power in Southeast Asia has encountered a crisis of trust.
For some Southeast Asian countries, China is "a partner that needs to be guarded against", and this mentality is reflected in their approach to strategic and traditional security issues.
Some countries that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea worry that China's military modernisation and growing nationalist sentiment will enable it to resolve the disputes by force or threat of force. They therefore deliberately seek to multilateralise the dispute by involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the United States.
With the US "returning to Asia" and backing its allies, and Vietnam and the Philippines trying to portray their claims to China's territory in the South China Sea as a dispute between China and Asean, the South China Sea has become the focus of China's relations with countries in the region. And with foreign media also riding the tide and sticking their oars into the troubled waters, China needs to properly handle the South China Sea disputes and China-Asean relations.
There is a wave of public opinion in China that believes the South China Sea situation is grim, and there are even some extreme voices calling for the use of force and giving up cooperation with Asean.
However, Asean appreciates China's strategy of peaceful development and basically approves of China's principle of "shelving disputes and seeking joint development" in the South China Sea.
Overall, cooperation is still the mainstream of China-Asean relations, and most Asean members have taken a relatively positive attitude to the rise of China.
Whether the China-Asean relationship can withstand the "test" of the South China Sea disputes depends on all parties' correctly assessing the regional strategic situation. The US' strategic shift to Southeast Asia will not undermine the foundation of China-Asean relations, but will help ease some Asean countries' concerns and fears about China's rise.
The "China threat" promoted by some is one of the main factors restricting the benign development of China-Asean relations, but it cannot fundamentally reverse the overall trend of fast development of bilateral relations.
In fact, the continual updating of the China threat theory can be seen as a sign of progress in relations between China and Asean nations, as each time it emerges, China will fully demostrate its diplomacy in pursuit of good-neighbourly relations. China and Asean's ties advance each time they resolve a thorny issue.
Some Asean countries lack a proper understanding of China's intentions and policies and may feel uncomfortable about China's rapid rise. This results in them vacillating between viewing China's rise as a threat or an opportunity. Adhering to its good-neighbour policy will help China finally prove that the threat theory is groundless. Win-win cooperation has long been the driving force for the continuous improvement of China-Asean relations, and it will continue to be so.
There is no need to overestimate the US' capacity to get its hook in Asean. China also cannot expect Southeast Asian countries to act against Washington's will.
Therefore, China should continue to ignore the voices calling for the use of force to settle the disputes. The use of force against Vietnam and the Philippines would only serve to push the two countries, and probably all Asean members into the arms of the West, leading to China's decades-long diplomatic efforts in Southeast Asia coming to nothing.
The result is China would not achieve the desired strategic objectives, instead it would create a surrounding environment that was antagonistic. In that case, the South China Sea will have become a "trap" on China's path of peaceful development.
So China should focus its soft power on three things regarding the South China Sea: it should seek to seize the moral high ground; seek to increase the trust of neighbouring countries, so that they are confident that China's rise is peaceful; and build up the majesty of China, none of which should be ignored. In this way the international community - particularly Asean countries - will know that China is committed to its path of "peaceful development".
The author is a research scholar at the Institute of South and Southeast Asian Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.