BEIJING – Amid China's outrage over an international tribunal that rejected its territorial claims in the South China Sea, the country is using new language that some experts say shows Beijing wants to be more flexible. But it is too late?
China has been on a public relations offensive to discredit The Hague-based tribunal that last week handed the Philippines a massive victory in its challenge to Beijing's claims to much of the sea. Buried in the outpouring of statements and diplomats' diatribes, however, is a new stance on cooperating with the Philippines and other claimants in jointly developing the waters' rich fishing stocks and potential wealth of other natural resources.
"China is ready to discuss with countries concerned about provisional arrangements pending final settlement of the dispute," the country's top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, said last week. Yang did not describe specifics of the arrangements but said they would include joint development for "mutual benefits."
Other official statements have also said China is willing to enter into "provisional arrangements of a practical nature," phrasing that echoes language used in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. Under UNCLOS, such "provisional arrangements" set aside issues of sovereignty and promote joint development of resources, with the understanding that cooperation would neither bolster nor undermine a state's claims. Several Chinese analysts said it marked a new approach for China.
"It is the first time that the idea of provisional arrangements has been proposed as a policy," said Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of South China Sea of Nanjing University.
Zhu said such arrangements under UNCLOS could expand the scope of possible activities in which China and other claimants could work together to include not just oil exploitation but the development of fisheries, tourism and other resources.
For years, China has publicly touted the idea of jointly developing the South China Sea with other claimants, but its insistence that the other party first recognize Chinese sovereignty over the features in question posed a major stumbling block, analysts say.
Chinese analysts say Beijing is offering such arrangements to demonstrate flexibility and play down the thorny issue of sovereignty. Other analysts say China is likely under pressure to head off attempts by other countries that claim parts of the South China Sea to replicate the Philippines' legal success.
China's main challenge is that last week's ruling gives other parties little incentive to talk.
"The problem is that according to the ruling, China only enjoys a very small part of the territorial sea, therefore laying a foundation for other claimants not to seek joint development," said Chen Xiangmiao, a researcher at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.
Analysts in the U.S. said the apparent shift in China's negotiating strategy was noteworthy, but that Beijing needs to build trust with the other claimants.
"Beijing's intimations that it is prepared to open the door to (provisional arrangements) is promising," said Dr. Lynn Kuok, non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution, who was among several scholars who have argued that China should adopt such arrangements.
Kuok said it is difficult to identify areas for joint development but the most obvious one would be the waters around Scarborough Shoal, where the tribunal found the Philippines and China both retained traditional fishing rights.
"However, trust in China is very low and Beijing will have to demonstrate the sincerity of its intentions fairly quickly," Kuok said.
Southeast Asian nations involved in disputes with China have said they think Beijing's calls for negotiations are mere stalling tactics as China continues to build airstrips and other infrastructure in the South China Sea, effectively expanding its control over the vast waters.
Tran Cong Truc, the former head of Vietnam's borders committee, dismissed China's overtures. In previous talks with Hanoi, China has sought joint development of waters that Vietnam considers its own exclusive economic zone to which Beijing has no legitimate claim, he said.
"Beijing wants to turn undisputed areas into disputed areas," he said.
"They wanted to secure a placement in the joint development as a first step and then control all of it," he said. "There could be some differences in the way they talk ... but there is no change in their nature."
Questions remain about the conditions Beijing would impose on any talks.
"I wonder whether there is a trap for the Philippines implicit in this enticing offer," asked Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The arbitration ruling essentially declared that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights in the South China Sea, leaving China with little leverage.
If the Philippines accepted the provisional arrangements, Glaser said, that might acknowledge that China has some form of resource rights despite the ruling to the contrary. "In essence, it is asking Manila to ignore the ruling," she said.
China has asserted that the tribunal's ruling cannot be made the basis of any negotiations over the disputes. The Philippines' foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay, this week said Manila rejected Beijing's offer of talks on that condition, saying it was inconsistent with the Philippines' constitution and its national interest.
On Thursday, the official China Daily carried a Chinese foreign ministry response to Yasay's rejection, urging the Philippines to chart a new course. The ministry was quoted as saying: "There is still time if timely remedy is made."
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Minh V. Tran in Hanoi, Vietnam, and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.