Gauging the Chinese
perspective on
South China Sea issues

Looking to get a Chinese perspective on issues relating to South China Sea dispute, master's student Jack Petterson travelled to China to talk to academics and officials. He was assisted by an Asia New Zealand Foundation Postgraduate Research Grant.
Jack Petterson standing in front of an alpine lake

Jack says getting a Chinese perspective on the South China Seas dispute was imperative to his research

In early November, I spent two weeks in Shanghai and Beijing conducting research for my Master of International Studies dissertation.

I am writing about the naval militarisation of the South China Sea and realised that I was simply approaching it from a Western perspective, using Western scholars and theories. I believed that it would be inappropriate to write on the topic without at least developing some sense of the various Chinese perspectives on the issue, and applied for an Asia New Zealand Foundation postgraduate research grant to travel to China to learn more.

Although the primary purpose of the trip was researching Chinese foreign policy, the experience taught me far more than that.

It was my second time in China. I had previously spent one month in Shanghai as part of a cultural and academic exchange, organised through the Shanghai Municipal Government and a local university.

China is a country with a rigidly fixed political system, one that is extremely hostile to foreign interference or influence. The academic system appears to be similarly structured, with very few apparent Western influences.

Throughout public areas of Shanghai and Beijing, street signs and stores are almost always translated into English, whereas university campuses appear more unilingual and therefore proved difficult to navigate. However, any resistance to foreign influence in the academic system was not reflected in the interactions I had with academics and students I met.

As an example, on my final day visiting universities I went to the Chinese Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. I had just come across a scholar’s contact details on a website, and sent her an email. She replied later that day, and said that she would love to talk to me.

When I met her, she was incredibly friendly and hospitable, and we had an in-depth chat about my research and the topic.

At the end, she asked if I would like to interview a colleague of hers, and put me in touch with a student who could accompany me to meet them. Little did I know this student had to travel for two hours through the city to meet me, then travel with me for another hour to meet with the colleague.

Together we visited the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one of the top think-tanks in Asia. Here I met with Xue Li, a world-renowned scholar and South China Sea expert who often writes articles for The Diplomat magazine.

Li helped provide further insight into why China opposes military freedom of navigation operations conducted by the United States, and how the Chinese government views the dispute in relation to other ongoing points of tension in east Asia.

Jack Petterson standing in front of a statue of Chairman Mao

Jack: "I have gained greater insight into how China operates, and how important it is for small countries like New Zealand to work together with developing countries like China, due to the opportunities such countries present."

The trip provided me the opportunity to learn a great deal about the Chinese perspective on international political events and regional security, both from academics and citizens.

Ideally, partnerships between universities in New Zealand and China can strengthen to the point where there are frequent engagements between academics and students from both countries. However, these opportunities are limited by funding, political barriers and, I believe, a scepticism on the part of New Zealanders to have their traditional perspectives on China challenged.

The experience was invaluable to my academic and personal development. I have gained greater insight into how China operates, and how important it is for small countries like New Zealand to work together with developing countries like China, due to the opportunities such countries present.

I hope that my work—and the work of the Asia New Zealand Foundation—can prove useful in strengthening public understanding and development of these areas, especially as China inevitably increases its relationship with the wider world, economically, culturally and academically.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation