China is one of a number of of states with territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is an increasingly important geopolitical issue.

Political maneuvering related to the disputed Spratly Islands took a new turn this week, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaking on the issue, reports David A. Welch for The Diplomat.

Ambiguity Reigns In The South China Sea

Worrying statement from Chinese Foreign Minister

Wang claimed that any flexibility on China’s claims would shame the country’s ancestors, and should “the gradual and incremental invasion of China’s sovereignty and encroachment on China’s interests” continue, it would be a black mark on its history.

The pronouncement reveals a peculiarity of Chinese foreign policy, in that culture and identity plays an important role in its decision-making process. Worrying about shaming your ancestors is not a common concern in foreign policy circles.

Wang’s statement may have been a tactical move which signals China’s intent to cement its place in the region. Beijing cannot be seen to back down from a foreign threat for fear of losing legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Such a pronouncement may signal China’s full commitment to defending an ever-expanding set of interests, but there is also the possibility that Wang was being genuine.

Justice motive in the South China Sea

Humans are very much concerned by justice, and the justice motive plays an important role in our interactions. It is defined as “the drive to correct a perceived discrepancy between entitlements and benefits,” and has a number of features. Psychologists tell us that when the justice motive is engaged, risk-taking behavior is increased, sensitivity to threats is decreased and we are less inhibited towards violence.

In the case of China, the sense that justice must be served in the South China Sea makes Beijing a dangerous actor. Another issue is that perceptions of justice are highly variable both within and between cultures, and in the South China Sea each claimant has its own perception of entitlements.

A society with clear rules governing entitlements will generally be well-ordered, and procedures are used to resolve disputes. Such a system must be maintained in the South China Sea, where conflicting perceptions of entitlements are causing problems.

Up to now, regional conflicts have been addressed with dialogue, but this approach leads to a lot of ambiguity. While some states have been more specific, Beijing has never fully specified the rights that it claims in the South China Sea. However the situation is complicated by ambiguities in international law regarding the maritime entitlements attached to features like reefs and shoals, as proved by the Philippines’ ongoing arbitration case.

Ambiguity may soon be reduced

Historical arguments are also used to promote claims, and history is not exactly clear. In addition, the status of some of the claims are unclear. China and Taiwan have almost identical claims, but it is not clear whether they are one claimant or two. If they are two, does Taiwan even have the right to make claims given its political status?

Although this ambiguity may appear to reduce the likelihood of conflict, there is no guarantee that the situation will not deteriorate. It looks increasingly unstable, and the ambiguity may soon be reduced. A ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration could clarify maritime entitlements in the Philippines’ case, ending an important legal case.

Should Wang’s statement provide evidence of China’s commitment to its own claims, ambiguities surrounding China’s exact wishes for the region may soon be reduced as well.

Geopolitical puzzle far from being solved

Ending the ambiguity in the South China Sea is not necessarily a good thing for all of the interested parties. Generally speaking, peaceful settlements last longer when each party gains something which matters to them. In order for that to occur in the South China Sea, disambiguation will have to be a carefully managed process, and will involve concessions made by each country.

The need for concessions is one difficult aspect of the situation, given the conviction with which each nation promotes its claim. Wang’s statement is not very encouraging for observers hoping that concessions will be made by China. It must be hoped that Beijing can see the bigger picture and not hold out for the total validation of its own claims at the expense of others.

A series of concessions must be made to ensure peaceful disambiguation, and the process must be tightly controlled to prevent the situation deteriorating into violence. It feels as though the story of the South China Sea may rumble on for the foreseeable future.