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Beijing’s A La Carte Approach to Foreign Policy

Beijing’s A La Carte Approach to Foreign Policy

FILE – In this Monday, June 9, 2014 file photo, visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, sits with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right during their meeting in New Delhi, India. Amid fierce disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, China is reaching out in a friendly way to India in a warming trend that could help ramp up economic exchanges and dissipate decades of distrust between the two giant neighbors. (AP Photo, File)

Following the largely negative international reaction to its latest aggressive actions in Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, Beijing may be trying a new approach in settling longstanding territorial disputes with its neighbors.  On Monday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced China is prepared to resolve its border disputes with India by peaceful means, “Through years of negotiation, we have come to an agreement on the basics of a boundary agreement, and we are prepared to reach a final settlement.” India shares a 6,400-kilometer (4,000-mile) border with China that triggered a brief war in 1962.  Also this week, Beijing applied for the inclusion of the 1937 Nanjing massacre and the “comfort women” forced to work in wartime military brothels in UNESCO’s Memory of the World program, which registers projects to reflect the “documentary heritage” of different periods.  Beijing has an ongoing dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and recently sought a binding decision under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Also on Monday, China took its dispute with Vietnam over its deployment of an oil rig in contested waters to the United Nations, sending a “position paper” to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accusing Hanoi of infringing on its sovereignty and illegally disrupting a Chinese company’s drilling operation.  Beijing requested the paper be circulated among the 193 members of the General Assembly.

According to the paper, the state-run China National Offshore Oil Corporation has been conducting seismic operations and well site surveys in the area for the past 10 years and the drilling operation “is a continuation of the routine process of explorations and falls well within China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction,” citing numerous references to back its claims.  The position paper also accuses Vietnam of “illegally and forcefully” disrupting the rig’s operation by sending armed ships and ramming Chinese vessels more than 1,400 times.

While Beijing may have cited numerous references to back its claim of sovereignty over the disputed maritime territory (which can undergo scrutiny), Beijing’s claim of 1,400 strikes by Vietnamese vessels undermines the integrity of the position paper.  To date, the only evidence the international public has viewed of vessels ramming other vessels comes from Vietnamese media, and shows Chinese ships ramming smaller Vietnamese boats.  Following calls from U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, Daniel Russel, urging China to provide evidence to back up its claims, Beijing now seems to be willing to document evidence of Vietnamese aggression.  Recent reports in Vietnamese media tell of Chinese crew members filming Chinese ships moving in reverse into the path of Vietnamese vessels in an attempt to make it appear as though the Chinese boats are being rammed.

So does this recent accumulation and submission of documentary evidence to international bodies mark a turning point in Beijing’s foreign policy strategy?  It’s not likely. While Beijing may cite the rule of law in accusing Vietnam of gross violations of UNCLOS, which China ratified in 1996, 10 years later Beijing said it would not accept procedures referring to “binding decisions” and compulsory processes under the law, considering certain UNCLOS rules to be inconsistent with its national policy.  China is also party to the Declaration on the Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea, which it signed in 2002; yet China, in moving an oil drilling rig into disputed territorial water, appears to violate Article 5 of that treaty, which calls for “self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes in uninhabited islands and reefs.”

While the international community may hail Beijing’s apparent conversion to playing by international rules, any celebration may be unwarranted.  Beijing will only pursue the rule of law only when it perceives it has a chance of winning, and should the outcome rule against Beijing’s interests, the ruling will simply be ignored. The latest evidence of Beijing’s a la carte approach to foreign policy came last week, when a judges’ panel at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague gave China six months to respond to a case filed by the Philippines in March. Tellingly, China’s Foreign Ministry quickly restated its refusal to participate.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666