Incentivizing Multilateralism in the South China Sea



Considering the multiple overlapping claims in the South China Sea, bilateral talks alone cannot yield a lasting solution. However, engaging in more inclusive dialogue will prove difficult for as long China – whose claims in these waters bring it into conflict with all the other claimants – remains averse to multilateral talks.

Part of the aversion likely stems from Beijing’s growing confidence in the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s strength relative to its maritime neighbors. With this perceived advantage, rather than multilateral talks – which could give China worse odds of getting all of what it claims in the region – Beijing seems confident that maintaining a preference for bilateral talks, while engaging in incremental island reclamation, more frequent patrols, as well as something occasionally more dramatic, will prove the more effective strategy, eventually forcing the other claimants to reconsider what they are willing to stake to realize their interests in the SCS.

However, with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and even non-claimant states like Indonesia and Singapore fast upgrading their navies, while building closer ties with each other – as well as with the United States, Australia and India further away, China is likely to find its military advantage in these waters less clear cut. And rather than spooking the other claimants into conforming to its wishes, Beijing’s assertiveness in the SCS will more frequently provoke responses in kind.

For the countries involved in these disputes, for those further away, and perhaps most importantly, for the 500 million people who live within 100 miles of the SCS coastline, the prevailing status quo, which leaves plenty of room for potentially devastating miscalculation, is far from ideal. And in a tense environment, continued obstinacy towards multilateral talks will likely come at a high cost.

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