Features | Security | East Asia

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

Although unnoticed by foreign analysts, Xi Jinping recently signaled a desire to dial back tensions in the South and East China Seas.

By M. Taylor Fravel for

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.

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Second, Xi said in his speech that China must “plan as a whole the two overall situations of maintaining stability and safeguarding rights” (yao tongchou weiwen  he weiyuan liangge daju), the first time such a phrase has been used by a top leader. This seemed to give equal importance to maintaining regional stability (weiwen) and safeguarding China’s “maritime rights and interests” (weiquan).

In past speeches by China’s top leaders, a reference to the “overall situation” (daju) typically described a primary national interest that Beijing should not allow to be harmed or undermined by specific state policies. In the 1990s, for example, speeches on military modernization asserted that increases in defense spending must be coordinated with the overall progress of economic reform – that is, spending should not increase at the expense of broader goals. More recently, in 2006, during a major speech on Chinese diplomacy, then-President Hu Jintao referred to the equal importance of managing the domestic and international overall situations (guonei, guowai, liangge daju). As Bonnie Glaser from the Center for International and Strategic Studies observed then, Hu’s statement reflected the judgment that Beijing’s domestic policy of urging enterprises to invest abroad had backfired by harming China’s image in the world.

In his speech to the Politburo, Xi thus highlighted the contradiction between China’s enhanced efforts to defend its claimed maritime rights and its desire for regional  stability. This matters for several reasons. First, it represents a recognition that Beijing’s maritime assertiveness has harmed its other interests, especially the role of other states in regional security affairs. Since 2010, for example, the United States has clarified its policy in the South China Sea, while deepening its alliance with Japan and underscoring its commitment to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (which Japan administers) under Article V of their mutual defense treaty. Tokyo meanwhile has pursued greater maritime and security cooperation with Hanoi and Manila, among others, including by providing patrol boats.

Second, the stress on the need to balance these competing interests suggests limits to how either will be pursued going forward. On the one hand, China will not rule out reacting to perceived challenges simply to maintain regional stability. On the other hand, China’s defense of its maritime claims will also face hard constraints, lest they further worsen its position in the region. How these interests will be balanced may become apparent as a newly formed Chinese Coast Guard under a reorganized State Oceanic Administration shows how it plans to behave.

In sum, Xi’s remarks to the Politburo deserve special attention. They indicate China may not be as impatient about resolving the South China Sea disputes as some analysts have suggested. And they indicate China’s approach to these disputes may be more nuanced than expected by those who have labeled him as little more than a nationalist hardliner.

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.