In China: Flexible on territorial disputes, firm on reforms

China will be more accommodating on territorial issues with its neighbours in the coming year, but will continue to be firm with reforms at home, said speakers at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum.

After two years of taking an aggressive stance on its East and South China Sea claims - particularly against Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines - China's foreign policy community is going through "serious reflection" over concerns that the country has lost respect and regional influence.

While they may cheer gains such as the undermining of United States leadership in the region, they have also seen the "negative consequences in regional strategic realignments", said China expert Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the forum on Friday.

China's introspection is reflected in comments from its officials, noted Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Some of them had told him that China must "learn to be more sensitive and understand other people's feelings".

The fact that he was invited to Beijing in June by a group of former vice-ministers and former generals to give a talk about "the mistakes that China has made" shows the country's "remarkable openness to learning".

"You know I've never been invited to Washington DC to talk about mistakes that America has made," he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

At the Beijing talk, Prof Mahbubani had told his audience bluntly that China had bullied and mishandled Japan, leading to a "very frightened Japanese population".

It was also "far too aggressive" on the South China Sea issue.

At home, however, China will press ahead with the raft of economic, bureaucratic and social reforms it has introduced.

Led by a new crop of leaders who are "more united, ambitious and reform-minded" than those before them, China will look to consolidate these reforms in 2015, said Dr Li.

One major change is that China will now tolerate lower economic growth to allow for economic restructuring.

"This will lay a solid foundation for more healthy economic growth and more balanced development in the years to come," Dr Li said. "It'll be beneficial for states in the neighbourhood as well."

This article was first published on Nov 24, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.