The South China Sea: China and Multilateral Dialogues

Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Lee, Lai To (1999) The South China Sea: China and Multilateral Dialogues , Security Dialogue 30(2): 165–178.

Beijing maintains that its sovereignty over the South China Sea is indisputable. While preferring bilateral negotiations to multilateral ones, it has not rejected dialogue with other disputants over regional issues, notably the Spratlys, through two diplomatic tracks in ASEAN fora - formal and informal. On the latter level, the annual workshop hosted by Indonesia since 1990 has proven particularly important. China has been reluctant to formalize negotiating procedures because of the presence of Taiwan and the issue of sovereignty. One fundamental problem is that the issue of regional economic development contains the implication of pooling rights over an area and the recognition of the rights of others. China may show little interest in using formal multilateral processes for discussing regional conflicts, but it cannot stop others from negotiating through these channels. Recently this has begun to change, with Beijing showing some willingness to talk informally about Nansha (the term deliberately used for the Spratlys). The Asian financial crisis has created some distraction, but China is moving towards a gradualist and slow acceptance of the use of multilateral discussions.