China’s Curious South China Sea Negotiation Policy

What would China expect to achieve with bilateral negotiations on maritime disputes?

China’s Curious South China Sea Negotiation Policy
Credit: U.S. State Department Photo

There has been a great deal of commentary recently on Beijing’s strident refusal to participate in the Philippines’ arbitration case and the almost desperate vehemence with which it is preparing to greet the tribunal’s final judgment. This is not terribly surprising, as most analysts agree that the Philippines will win on a number of crucial points, undercutting some, if not all, of China’s maritime claims. However, there has been surprisingly little analysis of Beijing’s preferred alternative to adjudicated dispute resolution: namely, bilateral negotiations. How might we understand this? What does it tell us about China’s wants, needs, or fears? What does it say about Chinese leaders’ view of the world?

The bilateral negotiation option is particularly puzzling in view of China’s profession that it has had “indisputable sovereignty” in the South China Sea since “ancient times.” One doesn’t make arguments about history at a negotiating table: one makes offers. Negotiation is the art of finding a quid pro quo, not winning a debate. And if Chinese sovereignty is indisputable, what is there to negotiate about? Is Beijing willing to give some up? If, as most analysts believe, the regime is as petrified of rising nationalist sentiment as it appears to be (this seems, after all, to be one of the main reasons that Beijing has been trying to undermine the Philippines arbitration case), then how could it possibly cede ground at a negotiating table without triggering a domestic backlash?

The cynical interpretation is that China wants to negotiate bilaterally so that it can bully others into submission. But it would be strange indeed if Beijing really thought that Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, or Brunei would be willing to sit down at a negotiating table merely to accept surrender terms. Presumably, Beijing thinks there must be a contract zone of some kind. What might that be?

One possibility is that Beijing is willing to resolve the lingering ambiguity of its South China Sea claims in order to settle disputes. The concession here, presumably, would be clarity. Beijing might say, for instance—as Taiwan has said—that the so-called nine-dash line is only meant to encompass the islands over which China claims sovereignty, not the body of water over which it claims maritime jurisdiction. That, China might say, would be governed by UNCLOS rules. The upside of this concession for rival claimants would be that it would pave the way for an orderly demarcation of territorial seas, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and continental shelf rights. The downside for rival claimants would be that unless China were actually willing to concede sovereignty over some of the Spratly, Paracel, or Pratas islands to others, the gain in clarity would largely be meaningless. China would still be asserting maritime jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea. Moreover, a great irony of this scenario is that the Philippines arbitration tribunal, whose legitimacy China has so hotly rejected, will certainly clarify a number of the provisions of UNCLOS, on the basis of which those maritime entitlements would be determined. If this is China’s default bargaining position, it would appear to be dead on arrival.

More likely, Beijing may think that rival claimants may be willing to yield on symbols in return for material gains. A strong indication that this may be so is that Beijing has regularly held out the prospect of “joint development” of natural resources in the South China Sea. Conceivably, Beijing may think that rival claimants would be willing to acknowledge China’s sovereignty over disputed islands in return for access to fishing grounds and the prospect of oil and gas riches. Certainly this would be an attractive outcome for China’s leaders, as they would be able to represent it domestically as standing ground on the “core interest” of sovereignty while at the same time demonstrating paternal benevolence toward China’s smaller and weaker neighbors.

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If this is the hand Beijing is prepared to play, it would tell us at least three interesting and important things: first, that for China the South China Sea dispute is fundamentally about symbols, respect, and prestige; second, that Chinese leaders do not believe that rival claimants similarly care about symbols, respect, and prestige; and third, that Chinese leaders believe that rival claimants think they can trust China to share in the South China Sea’s resource bounty equitably and reliably. The first of these is eminently plausible. But the latter two are not. People in general tend to care about symbols, respect, and prestige, and it would betray a naïve view of human psychology to think that Chinese do and others do not. Quite apart from the fact that China’s neighbors have feared, resented, and often resisted its “paternal benevolence” for thousands of years, China’s recent behavior has gravely damaged its reputation for trustworthiness—not only in the South China Sea, but also, for example, in Hong Kong. If Chinese leaders think there is a contract zone here, they lack the empathy required to see that this is wishful thinking.

At the end of the day, Beijing faces a stark choice if it truly wishes to settle disputes in the South China Sea: it can either put its confidence in its claims to the test in appropriate judicial fora, or it can offer rival claimants genuinely attractive terms, which would almost certainly require territorial concessions. At present, both seem highly unlikely. Meanwhile, tensions continue to rise. Fasten your seatbelts.

David A. Welch is CIGI chair of global security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, and Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.