Staring out to the horizon: is China pondering a new approach to the South China Sea disputes?

Staring out to the horizon: is China pondering a new approach to the South China Sea disputes? (Source:

The South China Sea is set to be one of the hottest flashpoints in 2012. Finding a way out may depend on how we interpret China’s approach to maritime disputes. But what precisely is China’s approach?

As the primary conduit of trade between Northeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, China has strong geostrategic interests in the area. The reported oil deposits and rich fishing grounds of the South China Sea also makes it an integral component to China’s energy and food security.

Beijing believes it is entitled to the South China Sea due to historical assertions of sovereignty. Chinese mariners have traversed the region for centuries and both the Qing Dynasty and Republic of China have asserted some degree of administrative control over several islands in the past.

China has proceeded to consolidate its blanket claim. It has unilaterally passed legislation specifying the Paracel and Spratley Islands as Chinese territory. It has persistently pursued oil exploration and drilling in disputed waters while firmly denying the right for other countries to do the same; the latest example being Beijing’s sharp criticism of the Indo-Vietnamese joint oil exploration initiative. Chinese maritime surveillance vessels frequently clash with the coastguards of other disputants. China has used force to secure or defend its claims on at least two occasions, the 1974 and 1988 naval skirmishes with Vietnam. Furthermore, it has constructed military facilities, erected artificial structures on reefs, launched naval exercises in the area, and aggressively opposed American maritime surveillance.

Most observers believe China’s approach is of a zero sum nature, characterised by its uncompromising attitudes and belligerent behaviour. China’s grand strategy has been regarded as a reflection of neorealist thinking. Its security environment as well as its objective of attaining regional hegemony in East Asia determines its South China Sea strategy. On the other hand, others have paid attention to the Communist Party’s sacred mission to bring the South China Sea back into China’s fold, an effort that is energised by strong nationalistic sentiments. Observers subscribing to these schools of thought reckon that Beijing has little incentive to negotiate, compromise or cooperate.

But analysis of China’s approach must transcend the assumption that it is still and always will be a zero sum game. For instance, Chinese policy-makers have slowly become more aware that aggressive and uncompromising behaviour will only attract condemnation and vigorous resistance from the region’s community. A better way for Beijing to seek prestige and earn leadership status is by projecting itself as a responsible and stabilising force. Moreover, since ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1996, China has relied increasingly on legal principles and objective criteria, rather than the use of force, as a means of approaching disputes.

Multilateral processes like ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum have played a pivotal role in transforming Beijing’s attitudes through the transmission of norms. Regular participation in multilateral processes has conditioned Beijing to accommodate regional expectations of confidence building. Multilateral processes also provide opportunities for norms to converge. The 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by China and ASEAN, reflects some consensus on how parties to the dispute should behave. While criticised as an ambiguous document falling short of a binding treaty, the Declaration nonetheless serves as a crucial confidence building platform for the easing of tensions.

While realpolitik continues to underpin Beijing’s policymaking process, the transmission of external norms has increasingly fuelled internal political and intellectual debate on whether to adopt win-win approaches. There are indeed signs of hope. At the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Bali last year, China and other disputants proposed a set of draft guidelines that would commit all parties towards implementing the principles agreed to in the 2002 Declaration. But the task of conditioning China’s attitudes and behaviour is a long-term and arduous project. It will take time for external norms to be processed, localised and accepted.

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Wilson's publication, "Examining China's Participation in Bilateral and Multilateral Military Exercises", Security Challenges Journal 7, no. 3 (2011), won first prize in the Australia Defence Business Review's 2011 Young Strategic Writers' Competition (article is available for download at Wilson completed a conjoint degree in LLB (Hons) and BA (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was a summer research scholar at the Australian National University's Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies and interned with the Lowy Institute of International Policy. His area of expertise includes the South China Sea, China-India relations, and China's military modernisation.
Wilson Chau has 13 post(s) on New Pacific Institute