Beijing plays divide and conquer to win in South China Sea

Without a diplomatic solution, China could be facing confrontation with Vietnam and the Philippines.

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Recent press coverage on the long-simmering South China Sea dispute gives the impression that the territorial argument is becoming a potential flashpoint for armed conflict and an increasingly sharp-elbowed strategic tussle between the United States and China.

The rising risk of armed skirmishes involving Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese naval or official vessels in the disputed areas is certainly worrisome. A year ago, Vietnam protested angrily after a Chinese patrol boat cut a multi-million-dollar seismic surveillance cable used by a Vietnamese oil and gas survey ship in areas claimed by both countries.

This spring, a Philippine naval cutter and several Chinese fishery patrol boats engaged in a standoff for several weeks at the contested Scarborough Shoal before Beijing and Manila reached a temporary compromise. Last week, a Chinese warship ran aground in the contested Spratly Islands, uncomfortably close to the Philippine island of Palawan.

In the meantime, a game of great powersis also unfolding over the troubled waters. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shocked Beijing two years ago by declaring that the South China Sea was a "vital interest" of the United States, throwing Washington's weight behind China's rivals, the geopolitical stakes of the dispute were raised significantly.

Washington initially exploited Beijing's mistakes in recent years - such as its rejection of multilateral negotiations and excessive use of strong-arm tactics - and helped to stiffen the resolve of some of the claimants, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. In retrospect, the Clinton shock was the opening move of Washington's East Asian "pivot", a momentous reorientation of the US security focus towards the region.

Inside China, a consensus was quickly formed. On a broader strategic level, the US pivot was perceived as a hostile move, if not a clear step towards a more explicit containment strategy. In the South China Sea dispute, Beijing viewed Washington's policy shift as insidious meddling in a quarrel in which it should not get involved, and also as the cause of the growing defiance by Vietnam and the Philippines.

But after recovering from its greatest diplomatic setback since Tiananmen, the Chinese government seems to have settled on a counter-strategy. Contrary to expectations of a more flexible negotiating approach - embracing a multilateral approach, declaring adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and signing a code of conduct - Beijing refused to budge.

China has opted for a negotiating position that seems increasingly untenable and counterproductive. A possible reason is that Beijing understands that its much-criticised "nine-dotted line", which essentially claims the entire South China Sea as Chinese maritime territory, cannot be supported by existing international law.

Incidentally, Vietnam has made the same expansive claims as China, but unlike Beijing, Hanoi has agreed to both multilateral negotiations and adherence to the principles of international law. Hanoi understands that such a stance favours it since Vietnam controls about 80 per cent of the features (ie, rocks and reefs) in the most contested Spratly Islands.

Hanoi's effective control would help it gain legal recognition of its claims to the surrounding waters under existing international laws.By contrast, China controls only six features and would have to settle for much less should it agree to resolve the dispute according the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

So the essence of Beijing's strategy is delay and denial. China apparently believes that by prolonging the current stalemate, it will deny the other contestants, principally Vietnam and the Philippines, the opportunity to gain legal recognition of their claims and access to the rich natural resources in the disputed areas.

China wants to resolve the dispute, but only on its own terms.And that will only be possible once China achieves uncontested regional dominance and the other claimants have no choice but to accede to Chinese terms.

Beijing is obviously aware that its strategy, in the short term at least, incurs huge diplomatic costs. To offset these costs, China has tried to gain support from some South-East Asian nations so that the other claimants are not able to forge a regional alliance on this issue to isolate China.

Since the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), to which all the other claimants belong, can reach decisions only based on consensus, all China needs to do is to make sure that a small number of members are sympathetic to China and refuse to back a collective stance that would undermine its position.

Because China has ample economic resources to achieve this goal, it may have already succeeded to a considerable degree.In last week's Asean summit of foreign ministers in Cambodia, the regional bloc was unable to reach a common position on the South China Sea dispute, a clear victory for Beijing.

But the Chinese strategy is not without risks. Absent a diplomatic solution, China can only expect confrontations with the Philippines and Vietnam over fishing and natural resource exploration to continue and escalate. In the worst-case scenario, accidents could turn into naval skirmishes.

Given China's preference for peace and stability in its neighbourhood, one has to wonder whether Beijing has taken precautions to prevent such crises. We can only hope it has.

Minxin Pei is a professorat Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States