China’s principles regarding the South China Sea (SCS) dispute are erratic, yet becoming clearer as the regional status quo is threatened by littoral actors, led by China itself.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested four principles to guide the SCS dispute during a recent visit to Australia, in preparation for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in November this year. First, he said that the dispute over the sovereignty of some reefs in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands is a leftover problem of history. He said historical facts should come first in handling the dispute. Second, he requested that other countries respect international laws, specifically referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Third, he said that direct dialogue and consultation between the countries involved should be respected. Last, he said that the efforts China and ASEAN have made to maintain peace and stability should be respected. He also limited the roles of the countries outside the region to “constructive” ones.
These principles are comparable to those mentioned in China’s 2011 white paper on peaceful development, which put forth the directive to “shelve disputes and seek joint development” as guidelines for upholding peace and stability in maritime areas. These same two principles appeared in Deng Xiaoping’s speech in 1984, as well as in another speech during his subsequent visit to Japan in 1986. Since then, Premier Li Peng and foreign ministers Qian Qichen, Tang Jiaxuan, Li Zhaoxing, Yang Jiechi, and Wang have continuously underscored the shelving principle in their public speeches.
However, Deng’s proposal was too abstract to produce any effective negotiation, especially when the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) lost its ability to maintain the status quo in the region. In the early 2000s, China joined various multilateral regimes concerning economic cooperation, scientific exploration, joint development, and the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking. However, the likelihood of amicable diplomacy in the SCS fell away rapidly once China firmly associated its core interests with the SCS in the late 2000s. Moreover, China’s participation in many regional regimes in the SCS kept the country from moving towards a resolution of the core dispute: maritime delimitation based on sovereignty.
The Four Respects suggested by Wang confirm China’s priorities in the SCS dispute, and could effectively guide China’s diplomatic efforts. Since the DOC was signed in 2002, China’s diplomatic strength has grown, and has been tested in various attempts to change the status quo. Beijing might now use the Four Respects in proactive bilateral negotiations and to suggest preconditions for the involvement of external actors.
The Four Respects are not new of course, and have been mentioned by Chinese diplomats in part and frequently over the years. In 2012, then Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi placed a high priority on these principles with regard to the SCS, during the ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting. Yang stated that “countries concerned should first resolve their territorial disputes over the Nansha [Spratly] Islands and, on that basis, proceed to resolve the issue of maritime delimitation in the SCS in accordance with international law, the UNCLOS included.” Wang also asserted China’s sovereignty in “the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters” during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in February 2014. Therefore, as long as the Spratly Islands and their adjacent waters are considered in advance to be Chinese territory, China is willing to discuss the maritime delimitation issue in the SCS, according to the UNCLOS.
China explicitly argues through the Four Respects that, firstly, the country does not completely ignore international law and abides by it as a legal signatory to UNCLOS, and secondly, it provides the littoral states with the opportunity to negotiate the waters around the Spratly islands as well as their adjacent waters, over which China has demarcated its sovereignty. China has held to its “indisputable sovereignty” since the 1980s; however, the principle of “indisputable sovereignty” has been segmented and specified by the recent Four Respects. The potential for negotiation through talks with the littoral states is also increasing, as China concentrates its diplomatic power on prioritized targets.
Jiye Kim is a PhD Candidate and Korean Government Fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University.