Multilateralism in the South China Sea Dispute: Misunderstandings and Opportunities


In spite of well documented domestic limitations, the CCP have made a concerted effort to boost their international  credibility

In spite of well documented domestic limitations, the CCP have made a concerted effort to boost their credibility abroad – UN via Flickr

On November 4th 2002, delegates from the People’s Republic of China and the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the Declaration on The Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). As expected, the rhetoric was dominated by pledges to build trust, confidence and adherence to the rules, norms and procedures of international law. Aside from this, what made DOC significant was China’s initial commitment to a “peaceful and durable solution of differences and disputes among countries concerned”. However, nearly 13 years on, despite noble attempts to build on this, including the ASEAN-China joint Working Group on the Implementation of the DOC in April 2010, the relevant stakeholders have failed to reach a legally binding code of conduct to peacefully resolve their overlapping claims to the South China Sea.

In spite of the seas strategic significance and natural resource abundance, it remains in neither China, ASEAN nor the external stakeholder, The United States of America’s (USA) national interests for an armed conflict to occur. This begs the question as to how a binding resolution has failed to transpire. China remains the most adverse of these nations and this article outlines the belief that part of this is rooted in two key limitations to the USA and ASEAN’s handling of the issue. First, their failure to adequately sympathise with China’s history of western exploitation and, secondly, their assumption that the Middle Kingdom’s domestic transgressions, including the imprisonment of political dissidents and rejection of liberal democratic principles, is a sure sign that they will act with the same iron fist beyond its borders.

Regarding the first issue, a major sticking point in dispute resolution has been the USA’s continued support for a multilateral solution in stark contrast to China’s favoured bilateral approach. This leads one to question the root of China’s disdain for external interference especially given the demonstrable support for multilateralism via, for example, the founding of the Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB). The answer is quite simple. From the First Opium War in 1839 until Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China was subject to what they perceive to be numerous “humiliations” at the hands of western powers, specifically with regard to invasions of its sovereign territories. This has led to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, as stated in a white paper released on September 6th 2011 named “China’s Peaceful Development“, to be two of China’s non-negotiable “core interests”. These principles are premised on the declaration that China will “not interfere in another countries’ internal affairs” and subsequently expects the same courtesy.

Thus, it is no wonder that, given the Obama administration’s widely held “Pivot to Asia”, the CCP have looked to protect their perceived sovereign borders in response to a fear of history repeating itself via a strategic encirclement from the USA and ASEAN. The notable actualization of this fear can be seen through China’s rigorous protection of Hainan Island’s borders which has required control of the contested Paracel Islands in order to provide air cover and sea protection for Chinese vessels leaving and entering the Yulin Naval Base. This is a feasible explanation for the March 2009 USS Impeccable incident when the vessel was confronted by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) 121 kilometres off the coast of Hainan or the more recent interception of the USN P-8 Poseiden Maritime Control Aircraft (MPA) while it was performing a routine reconnaissance in the same vicinity.

The second issue is that western nations maintain the anxiety that, despite China’s success in synergising authoritarian rule with a liberal economic model simultaneous with being a “semi-responsible” member of the international community, their domestic and foreign policy remains ideologically aligned under one umbrella. This assumption is demonstrably false. To name one, while Liu Xiabo’s continued incarceration has fostered numerous justified condemnations from external authorities, beyond its borders China has made the 9th largest contribution of police and military forces to UN peacekeeping operations, more than any other western nation. Despite the motives behind the latter remaining highly opaque, it is sufficient to show that China’s domestic policy is not always a reflection of its foreign policy and requires the two to be considered as separate units of analysis.

In spite of the sea’s crucial geostrategic and economic significance, if we are to wholly debunk the realist notion that the USA and China could resort to armed conflict over the South China Sea, it is crucial to encourage consensus building over their common interests, including global economic stability and ecological sustainability in spite of their discernibly contrasting societal and ideological values. A good starting point could be the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in late November 2015. Given that a core tenet of Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” thesis is the realization of a Beautiful China (an ecologically sustainable nation) as well as the fact that China enters the talks off the back of the landmark Sino-US commitment to long term emissions cuts a year previously, their delegates are likely to arrive with an agenda aimed at consensus building.

Continued cooperation on non-traditional security issues such as the environment can foster long term trust between the USA and China on more controversial sticking points

Continued cooperation on non-traditional security issues such as the environment can foster long term trust between the USA and China on more controversial sticking points – via Flickr

By showing greater sympathy with China’s history and leaving ideology aside in the pursuit of common interests, the international community can neutralize the nationalistic wing of the CCP’s fears of a US-ASEAN led strategic encirclement of China’s shores in the South China Sea. Most significantly, building a sustainable relationship between the two “Great Powers” of the 21st century (The US and China) will not occur overnight, it needs to be incremental and may require an improved effort to accommodate Beijing’s non-negotiable “core interests”.

The featured Image for this article is from Flickr.


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