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VI. The Future: Compromise?

Amidst this brinksmanship and saber-rattling tension, however, there are beginning to be signs that Beijing may be willing to pursue a different tack. China has been surprisingly willing to negotiate with ASEAN states in recent years, perhaps shrewdly outmaneuvering the United States in the process. For not only does this rob the American FON program of credibility – why would the U.S. uphold the right of freedom of navigation for ASEAN states who have made no complaint about the lack of freedom? – but it also builds bridges of friendship between China and ASEAN nations. The South China Sea rivalry between the two superpowers is as much about courting diplomatic allies away from each other as it is about petroleum or natural gas.

Perhaps Beijing has recognized that an aggressive stance will only drive the other ASEAN claimants into the arms of the Americans, given that the U.S. Navy is the only credible deterrent to the might of the Chinese PLAN. In addition, Beijing may be aware that the other five claimants are likely to gang up together on Beijing if they perceive a menacing PRC threat. The motives remain unclear, but the olive branches are being passed around.

To date, China has signed groundbreaking new agreements with Vietnam and the Philippines. In particular, Beijing signed a consensus agreement for joint exploration of the disputed Spratly Islands with Hanoi and Manila in March 2005. This agreement comes on the wake of China negotiating overflight rights with Vietnam and President Hu Jintao’s visit to Manila in 2000. It remains to be seen whether such diplomatic tactics are only local, or will spread to the entire region.

Such negotiation may also permit the PRC to begin exploiting the South China Sea’s rich resources at last. When the PRC claimed anything and everything for itself with a stance of utter inflexibility, extraction of resources was impossible, but with compromise, it can finally begin. If even buoys and bamboo floats were perceived as intolerable by the Philippines and regularly blown up in military skirmishes in the 1990s, it is scarcely probable that oil-drilling rigs of any flag – by far the most provocative of territorial establishments – could survive and be productive for long in an environment of bitter enmity. In the South China Sea, negotiation is not a “Win-Win;” it is the only possible Win.

There is however no doubt a desire to on all sides to test the boundaries and to push matters as far to the edge as possible. The current spat between the PRC and the joint venture with Vietnam and US Oil Giant Exxon provide an eloquent testimony to such attitudes.