Why China’s South China Sea Diplomacy Will Frustrate Claimants

International frustration over outcomes in the South China Sea is a fine outcome for China.

By Robert Farley

What happens the next time people die for an island in the South China Sea? And what happens if some of those people hail from a great power?

Last weekend, the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, in conjunction with the Army War College, conducted a negotiation simulation on crisis resolution in the South China Sea. The simulation began shortly after an incident between Chinese and Filipino ships resulted in the deaths of five Indians and 95 Filipinos.

The South China Sea simulation is the third simulation developed by the Army War College. The first two, on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and the Cyprus conflict, have become regular features at foreign policy schools around the country. The AWC regularly conducts these exercises in collaboration with several different schools across the country, as well as with students at the AWC.

Patterson engages in these simulations because they give our students the opportunity to develop negotiation, communication, and organizational skills, which will help them in whatever careers they pursue.  But the course of this simulation also illuminated some of the problems associated with continuing disagreements in the SCS. This simulation consisted of seven teams (China, the Philippines, India, Japan, the United States, Vietnam, and Indonesia). Each team had an advisor, usually a government diplomatic professional (including advisors from India and Canada). I advised the Chinese team, which began the game with one serious disadvantage: everyone hated us, and we had just killed a hundred people.

As China, we believed our job was to prevent any kind of multilateral agreement with regard to SCS management that involved one of the other great powers. Our assumption was that China held all of the long-term advantages. The United States is a declining power on its way out, Japan remains in a hopeless long-term strategic position, and India lacks real, enduring interests in the area. Consequently, we focused on managing relations with the regional states, even granting the possibility of multilateral arrangements.  We assumed that, absent outside interference, China could “revise” any agreement it wanted with its neighbors, using the weight of its military and economic power to push issues slowly in its favor.

Indeed, our team took “What have you done today to ensure that everything fails?” as our motto.

As China, we had no interest in facilitating any agreement that would include extra-regional powers. We decided to treat Japan as a potential junior partner (with the emphasis on junior), treat the United States as an intervening hostile power, and pretend that India didn’t exist.  We made some effort to “pick off” one of the regional states, but in the end we faced a united, if unenthusiastic, front.

And nothing happened, because no agreement over sovereignty and conduct in the South China Sea matters without the adherence of the PRC. Did we win? Not really, but nobody else won, either. The simulation ended, as expected, with six angry, frustrated delegations. From China’s perspective, that was just fine.

What lessons? Operating under the assumption that its long-range position will improve, tactics don’t matter overmuch to China. This is not to say that China should deliberately court danger in the SCS. Anything that could draw India and Japan together, or that could pull the United States back in, could delay Chinese control by decades, not to mention endangering China’s position in other areas. But when Beijing feels that it owns the future, it has a lot of freedom in the short and medium team.




Yongxing Island (Woody Island)


A photograph taken in February of the Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea, a reef occupied by China but also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. According to the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department, this photo appears to show large-scale reclamation being carried out in stages by China. — Photo: Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs



An example of what Vietnam calls  China’s “lawlessness” at sea: A Chinese ship rams and collides with a Vietnamese vessel in contested waters of the South China Sea. Photo: AFP photograb

In May 2014, China moved its largest ocean going oil rig to the waters near Vietnam. The oil drilling rig remained in place for more than a month despite Vietnamese diplomatic moves to protest.

China considers much of the South China Sea its territory based on its nine-dash line map. The map covers an area that extends hundreds of miles south from Hainan Island and takes in the Paracels, which are claimed by Vietnam, and the Spratly Islands, some of which are claimed by the Philippines. China is creating artificial islands in the Spratly area.

China claims to own all the South China Sea inside the “nine dash line” as seen here.

China claims ownership of about 90% of the South China Sea. Most of China’s neighbors believe otherwise.


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