Xi Jinping’s Overlooked Revelation on China’s Maritime Disputes
Image Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Xi Jinping’s Overlooked Revelation on China’s Maritime Disputes


At the end of July, the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling Politburo held a special study session on the nation’s growing maritime power, which has helped cause controversy with several neighboring states. Official media reports about the meeting emphasized a speech by President Xi Jinping that repeated the main policy themes from the recent 18th Party Congress, calling for China to become a major maritime power by developing its maritime resources and protecting the ocean environment.

But Xi’s most interesting remarks have received scant attention. Under China’s system of collective leadership, speeches at Politburo meetings usually reflect the consensus of the participants – in this case, China’s top 25 leaders. Near the end of his address at the most recent study session, Xi discussed China’s ongoing maritime disputes and predictably repeated many now common talking points, such as “never giving up its legitimate rights and interests,” especially the nation’s core interests. Nevertheless, two other phrases he used may illuminate how Beijing may handle these disputes and therefore deserve greater attention. Xi’s remarks suggest that Beijing may be reconsidering the merits of its most assertive actions in the East and South China Seas—ones that have caused grave diplomatic problems with Japan and many Southeast Asian countries.

First, Xi repeated the late Deng Xiaoping’s 12-character guideline for dealing with territorial disputes over offshore islands such as the Spratlys and Senkaku/Diaoyu. In a series of statements between 1979 and 1984, Deng had outlined his more moderate approach, later summarized as “sovereignty remains ours; shelve disputes; pursue joint development.” In recent years, Chinese scholars and analysts have debated the merits of that approach, sometimes criticized for failing to prevent what have been perceived infringements of Chinese sovereignty. For example, just last year a prominent analyst at the China Contemporary Institutes of International Relations, Chen Xiangyang, called for a more assertive policy. In particular, he suggested that Deng’s guideline be replaced with a tougher approach: “sovereignty of course is ours; maintain the dispute stage; seize the initiative to pursue development; strengthen crisis management and control” (zhuquan dangran zaiwo, jieduanxing baochi zhengyi, zhuajin zizhu kaifa, qianghua weiji guangkong).

However, by repeating Deng’s 12-character guideline, Xi endorsed and affirmed Deng’s earlier position on behalf of the entire Politburo (including two of the People’s Liberation Army’s top generals, Fan Changlong and Xu Qiliang). By stating what the party line should be, Xi indirectly addressed the internal debate about Deng’s guideline. Of course, Deng did not offer a plan for resolving the underlying sovereignty disputes, but the Politburo’s affirmation of Deng’s approach indicates that Beijing will be patient, and pursue temporary measures to reduce tensions. It also undermines a growing belief overseas that China is becoming increasingly impatient at sea.

A few days later, Foreign Minister Wang Yi illustrated what Xi’s remarks could mean in reality. During a tour of Southeast Asia, Wang indicated that a final resolution could only be achieved through bilateral talks and would “take time,” while progress on a much-needed Code of Conduct for minimizing maritime problems could only be achieved without outside interference (read: the Philippine decision to seek international arbitration rather than direct diplomatic talks). Thus, Wang emphasized “actively” exploring joint development, though he failed to offer any specific details about how to do so.

August 24, 2013 at 11:08

Perhaps you failed to learn that appeasement was to the Axis and that China and America were on the same side.

August 24, 2013 at 11:03

What aggression are you specifically referring to?

August 24, 2013 at 11:00

Why? Who’s the enemy? The ones that bombed pearl harbor I suppose.

August 23, 2013 at 16:52

It's a good thing that the US has made a "pivot" to East Asia in light of developments here. More than half of the American fleet will be staioned in the Pacific. It's about time!

August 22, 2013 at 15:55

Very poor analysis. Trying to defend the indefensible. Dr Fravel has a tendency to justify the PLA's aggression against its neighbouring countries. He cannot distinguish between China's words and deeds.

August 18, 2013 at 14:24

Harassment from China?  That is absurd.  Look at how USA had harassed China in the Yin-he Ship or "Galaxy Ship" incident in international water in the link below.


Even the USA inspector thought it was an outright harrassment.

August 18, 2013 at 14:09


16.  India

August 18, 2013 at 14:07

As good a scholar as you are, I failed to understand how you phrased "…and their resulting diversified opposition of all neighbors…".  Can you provide the percentage of neighbors in opposition to China's claims?  Let's list all neighbours:

1.  Russia

2.  Mongolia

3.  Myanmar

4.  Nepal

5.  Bhutan

6.  Laos

7.  Vietnam

8.  North Korea

9.  Pakistan

10.  Afghanistan

11.  Kygyzstan

12.  Tajikistan

13.  Khazakhstan

close enough to include,

14.  Japan

15.  South Korea

So, exactly which ones do you think are not in good terms with China?

John Durst
August 18, 2013 at 00:24

Can someone enlight me of why M. Taylor Fravel consistently ignore sufficient evidences of Chinese poorly managed adventurism and their resulting diversified opposition of all neighbors, to focus on Chinese choice words ( as though they have meanings )? – Show of his unmatched Chinese language skill ?

August 16, 2013 at 18:45

The Chinese position, as enunciated by Xi, is simple. Accede to our ridiculous, illegal mclaims on your territory and we might be able to talk about jointly developing your resouces. A very poor analysis by Mr Fravel

August 16, 2013 at 12:28

As an old Burmese saying goes: "if you give the Chinese your little finger today, tomorrow they will own your land and your daughters" (and scrape the gold from your pagodas!)

August 16, 2013 at 10:48

I read the washington times article, and it states the USNS was apeared 10,000 yards away.

I watched the video, it did appeared far away, while the water cannon shot water about 10 yards.

Thanks for sharing your bullsht. Feel free to send shi

August 16, 2013 at 10:22


I don't think the damage can ever be repaired. The Chinese have taken off the mask of peace and revealed their true face. The only thing they respect is strength and resoluteness of thought. We should learn from the appeasement mentality of the 1930's – it only emboldens the aggressor.

Don Koh
August 16, 2013 at 06:30

A finely written analytical piece by Taylor Fravel.

With respect to asnwering the question however; "why President Xi Jingping's recent speech has not received more attention for some perceived effort to reduce tensions"… arguably Xi's speech did not truly indicate any material deviation from Deng's 'guideline' itself, to include the 9/11/12-division/character sovereignty claim.

Noted; Xi is currently supporting Deng's approach of his assuming 'core interests' to include 'indisputable sovereignty' over SCS/WPS disputed territories, but to unilaterally pursue joint/bilateral development of the area in dispute in the meanwhile, while simultaneously working to reduce tensions overall.

Well, sorry but, therein emphasizes the very core and inherent dispute being realized today!  One which certain regional nation members might have outright issue with and reject on face value, namely, Philippines.

Is a country such as Philippines not allowed to have a 'Philippine Dream' as well?  Is a country such as Philippines not allowed to unilaterally establish 'core interests' as well?  Is a country such as Philippines not also permitted to unilaterally pursue 'bilateral development' at will in areas of WPS/SCS within her recognized EEZ?

See?  Why is it that only the CCP general secretary and CMC chairman is seemingly authorized by a 'Chinese Dream' to unilaterally claim absolute ownership and entitlement of such principles and rights?  And no other nation member of the region?  

Is it about disgusing possible longer-term hegemonic plans to apply more assertive policy at the proper time?

I'd personally argue that a future speech by President Xi would gain far more attention if he humbly assessed and recognized that indeed: the proper path forward in the region is to keep PRC 'core interests', but to also accept that certain former, albeit well-intended, but truly obsolete claims of 'indisputable regional sovereignty' should in fact be redefined and revised to better fit the realities and cooperation of a more just 21st century global dream.  Good luck.

August 16, 2013 at 01:39

Let's see if they can repair the damaged image of China, it was welcomed a decade ago in SEA as a partner and after its agressive moves in the disputed areas made various States uneasy.

August 16, 2013 at 00:48

Do not listen to what china and chinese say, watch out for what they do.

August 16, 2013 at 00:18

No one's dense enough not to see that smaller countries have been alarmed and have been taking countermeasures. The question is, how will this translate on the frontline? How much will underlings and/or ultranationalists hamper any goodwill being extended? And lastly, can we really trust the Chinese Politburo? There had been doublespeak before, actions that did not match promises. So credibility is in question here.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
August 15, 2013 at 20:42

Here come the academics – parsing over the speeches of CPC leaders and ignoring the actions of the CPC.  




Such as firing water cannons at the USNS Impeccable – weeks after the Sunnylands Summit in July 2013. 




Their words mean nothing Mr. Fravel. Watch what they do. 


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