Many of the most salient disputes between China and its neighbors involve maritime issues. Moreover, as demonstrated by the current standoff between Beijing and Manila over Scarborough Shoal, China is often seen as assertive and uncompromising. Nevertheless, maritime talks held with Japan this week suggest that China can be more flexible in managing its maritime disputes than most outsiders believe.
China and Japan agreed to establish this high-level consultative mechanism on maritime affairs in December 2011 during Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s first trip to Beijing. These talks, which will be held twice a year, are designed to enhance crisis management by increasing communication among related government agencies in both countries. As a press release from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) noted, the talks will serve a “platform” for increasing dialogue and communication, promoting cooperation, and managing disputes at sea.
Such a consultative mechanism is sorely needed. As the September 2010 crisis over the detention of a Chinese fishing captain near the Senkakus demonstrated, maritime disputes can escalate into a crisis. In addition to the dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkakus, China and Japan have other maritime conflicts: the demarcation of their Exclusive Economic Zones in the East China Sea, China’s development of the Chunxiao natural gas field near the median line that Japan claims, fishing operations, and survey activities, among others.
The first round of talks was held at the departmental level, led by Yi Xianliang, Deputy Director of the MFA’s Department of Boundary and Maritime Affairs, on the Chinese side. Importantly, the participants didn’t just include diplomats but also representatives from key Chinese bureaucracies involved in maritime affairs and their counterparts from Japan, including the Ministry of National Defense (PLAN), Ministry of Public Security (the Coast Guard), Ministry of Transportation (the Maritime Safety Agency), Ministry of Agriculture (the Bureau of Fisheries Administration), the State Energy Administration, and the State Oceanic Administration (the Marine Surveillance Force).
Details of the talks weren’t disclosed. The MFA press release simply noted that the two sides had exchanged views on maritime issues and cooperation, including the Senkaku Islands. Nevertheless, the creation of such a high-level mechanism on maritime affairs may represent a significant development in Chinese foreign policy for several reasons:
To start, the talks constitute the first comprehensive and institutionalized mechanism on maritime issues between China and Japan. Previous talks over a 1997 bilateral fisheries agreement or the 2008 agreement on gas exploration in the East China Sea were conducted on an ad hoc basis and included only those actors directly involved in the issue being negotiated. Given the potential for any one maritime dispute to escalate and create a crisis, these talks may help stabilize Chinese-Japanese relations.
The present standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal notwithstanding, these talks with Japan reflect a pattern of Chinese moves to manage its territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbors. Examples of such efforts include a July 2011 agreement with ASEAN over guiding principles for implementing the 2002 code of conduct declaration in the South China Sea, an October 2011 agreement with Vietnam on basic principles for resolving maritime issues, and a January 2012 agreement with India for managing border incidents along their disputed frontier.
In addition, the talks suggest that China is strengthening interagency coordination in maritime affairs under the leadership of the MFA. A recent report from the International Crisis Group highlighted the lack of coordination among maritime actors as a source of Chinese assertiveness between 2009 and 2011 in the South China Sea. These talks bring together each of the “five dragons” of civil maritime law enforcement agencies that can influence China’s relations with its neighbors at sea, and may help increase coordination among them. Moreover, by including the Defense Ministry, the talks may also strengthen coordination and communication between the MFA and the PLA.
Finally, the talks provide a model that might be used to address other maritime issues elsewhere, including in the Yellow Sea with South Korea and even perhaps in the South China Sea. Clashes between Chinese fishermen and South Korean authorities have reached a new peak in recent years, with almost 500 Chinese vessels having been fishing illegally in Korean waters. Likewise, despite a joint fishing agreement, the two sides haven’t demarcated their maritime jurisdiction under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
To be sure, this new mechanism that China and Japan have created hasn’t yet been put to the test. Still, it suggests that China can pursue more flexible and collaborative approaches in its maritime disputes with neighboring states – and that Beijing acknowledges the importance of such flexibility.