Zimmerman - The South China Sea: can the G20 play a part in

G20 Summit, September 2016
The South China Sea: can the G20 play a part in
conflict resolution?
Annemie Zimmerman
Department of Politics, University of Sheffield
neighbours anxiously look to resolve
tensions surrounding territorial disputes in
development continues to be key to
the South China Sea. This has not only
China’s core aims, and a means by which to
threatened to disrupt China’s attempts at
continue building bridges with its regional
the perfect summit, but also resulted in
and global partners, the G20 summit
continued feelings of anxiety surrounding
remains key to the country’s interactions
China’s rise. With tensions high before,
with the world. With this in mind, the
during and after the summit, the relative
opportunity to host the summit in the
lack of silence on the issue only serves as a
People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been
reminder that China is still critically viewed
eagerly pursued by its government, and
globally through its territorial disputes,
became an occasion at which to present to
more than through the positive impact it
the world a China that has the capability to
can have upon the world.
host such a prominent event. In hosting for
the first time, the Chinese leadership was
Territorial disputes have been present in
keen to show the country at its best,
the Southeast Asian region for centuries,
emphasising economy and green finance,
and have held a central role in creating
and steadfastly ignoring and quietening
tension and strained relations between
any political issues less favourable to the
neighbours, which range from Japan, and
Chinese regime. In downplaying political
India, to even North Korea. The South
disputes however, China has risked
China Sea, which is almost wholly claimed
bringing these issues to the fore, as
by the PRC, however, is possibly most
G20 Summit, September 2016
contested, due to the number of claimants
in both countries. Similarly, US-Sino
involved, and the rising escalation of
relations are constantly under strain, in
tensions in the area in recent years. It is
spite of progress in other areas; this could
generally accepted that China has become
not have been more evident than in days
preceding the summit, where both Obama
matters since 2012, which has led to a
and Abe warned the PRC to show
series of clashes in the South China Sea
‘restraint’ in its handling of the South China
(and also, with Japan, over the Senkaku-
Sea issue, only to be rebuffed and issued
Diaoyu islets). Although this has been seen
with thinly veiled threats in response.
by some as a natural accompaniment to
China’s ‘rise’ in the global order, others
US involvement in the South China Sea
view this ‘assertion’ as a direct challenge
highlights well how central this issue has
become to international discourse. The call
cementing a lack of trust in a region which
for 'restraint' not only risks further
is only now beginning to move on from the
damaging of relations with China, but also
trauma and upheaval of the last century.
reveals yet again how important Southeast
Asia has become to US foreign policy. As
That this assertion is often seen as a
possible challenge for dominance remains
therefore, it is not an exaggeration to state
one of the region’s greatest challenges.
that much of the region feels threatened
Although diplomatic crises are frequently
through China’s claim to the near entirety
linked to lingering WW2 sentiments and
of the South China Sea, and that this
trauma, the resurgence of territorial
continues to hinder meaningful diplomatic
disputes is still a huge factor in the creation
progress. China’s continued
of misunderstandings between states.
bilateral talks with its neighbours have not
always been productive, although its
Dobson’s article on increased rivalry
leadership’s regular calls for peaceful
between Japan and China), have continued
negotiation and continued co-operation
to stall in recent years, as nationalism rises
offer hope for future progress.
call for
G20 Summit, September 2016
The South China Sea reaching peak
through which to address wider issues.
attention in time for the G20 summit is a
Recent summits have therefore called on
matter that China has attempted to handle
participating nations to increase dialogue
with care. That the G20 is a process
and improve relations on all issues,
designed primarily to focus on the global
explaining partly the increased confidence
economy has been China’s most important
of nations in calling on China to address the
fall-back. Previous summits have usually
South China Sea dispute openly at the
played out with minimal focus on political
issues, and is one key reason for the G20’s
popularity, especially with economically
This willingness to engage beyond the
developing countries such as China. Its role
as an environment within which countries
presently, as tensions surrounding the
can focus on economic expansion, with
little focus on issues such as human rights,
significantly in recent months as a result of
and territory, have created a forum that
a ruling by the Permanent Court of
generally looks beyond political disputes.
Arbitration on 12 July. This ruling dismissed
Yet, in recent years, there has been
China’s historical claims to the Sea as
increased interest in moving beyond purely
meritless, and called on the PRC to scale
economic issues. This is most commonly
back its activities in disputed areas. The
seen through the emergence of green
Filipino claim was taken to The Hague in
finance, as climate change is increasingly
the understanding that bilateral talks had
seen as a subject that affects not only the
yielded few results, and that Chinese
economy, but the entire future trajectory
activity in the area violated the UNCLOS
of the world. However, other matters such
(United Nations Conventions on the Laws
as territory are increasingly brought into
of the Seas) agreements in relation to
the G20 frame; many leaders see that the
‘exclusive economic zones and territorial
G20, as the largest gathering of dominant
seas’. As both parties have signed UNCLOS,
world economies, should also be a zone
the tribunal looked merely to whether or
G20 Summit, September 2016
jurisdiction. In restricting the access of
years. Therefore, China’s response to the
ruling was, as expected, to refuse to accept
Scarborough Shoal, building small islands,
its legitimacy, and state that the ruling is
and destroying natural features of the
not accepted under international law.
seas, China was ruled to have acted
illegally, and would have to ease up on
It is for these reasons that the G20 made
aggressive tactics in the sea.
such a prominent stage for discourse on
the South China Sea, regardless of whether
Xinhua News followed the ruling with the
or not China intended to engage. China’s
claim that the panel’s decision was
traditional reliance on economic channels
'naturally null and void', and lacking
of dialogue have made it vulnerable to
legitimacy. This can be linked largely to
accusations that it is unable to act
China’s belief that the Philippines acted
responsibly at a global level, and can
without Chinese consent in seeking out a
therefore not be relied upon to discuss
third party to resolve the dispute. For
China, bilateral talks are still relied upon
aggressive or deflective actions. The G20
most when it comes to international
Leaders’ Communiqué, released at the end
of the summit, came closest to broaching
illegitimate court and outcome by China’s
the subject, and refers to how ‘challenges
leadership, the global community and
international media have keenly followed
recent developments, some of which
complicate the global outcome’, without
appear to show continued island creation
ever mentioning the South China Sea. Side-
in opposition to the court’s decision. Such
line meetings at the summit involved
a ruling is hugely detrimental to China’s
various leaders giving advice to China on
claims of sovereignty over those areas, and
how best to handle the situation, but made
undermines nationalistic feeling that the
little headway in genuinely engaging on
Chinese Communist Party has diligently
the topic. It can be seen as commendable,
instilled in the Chinese public over the
in some form, that the PRC has not allowed
G20 Summit, September 2016
a relatively small issue to cloud an
others to look beyond issues such as
otherwise progressive summit, and it must
territory, as China continues to make it
be made clear that to constantly focus on
such a large part of their foreign policy.
the South China Sea is to bring public
Although China downplays attention paid
attention back towards an issue that is far
to the South China Sea, its unwillingness to
too complex to solve over the course of the
discuss territory except through physical
G20 meetings. In fact, by stating in the
action and thinly veiled threats, continue
communiqué that the G20 countries hope
to serve as a source of anxiety to other
to move beyond disagreement, and rely
countries in the vicinity. Every positive
instead on progress, it can be argued that
interaction with China comes back to the
China has chosen wisely to move beyond
South China Sea, making genuine progress
regional disputes to wider global interests.
– diplomatic or not – very difficult to
Nevertheless, there is clearly an issue
when a country relies upon deflection and
This has resulted in a world as caught up
threats to work through an issue with
with the South China Sea as China, and it is
which it is uncomfortable. In drawing on
clear that global arenas such as the G20 are
‘inclusivity’ and global development as
aptly suited to address some of these
important aspects of this year’s G20, China
associated problems. If the G20 is to retain
must learn to shake off its reputation as an
its status as an effective alternative to the
actor which only seeks self-promotion, for
G7, it must learn to consistently work on
the greater cause of global collaboration.
improving relations between countries
China can be seen as caught in a self-
beyond the economic fields of discourse.
created trap. In acting defensively on
For China, the summit was an opportunity
difficult matters such as territory, others
to work with other nations to cast itself as
expect China to continue promotion of its
a ‘responsible actor’ at the global level. By
own interests ahead of collaborative
navigating the summit with minimal
efforts, and to remain fixed upon certain
aggression, the PRC is showing increased
diplomatic styles. This makes it difficult for
signs of socialisation, although it still has
G20 Summit, September 2016
some way to go. China must now work with
improved relations and collaboration
its fellow G20 members, and other South
between all members and non-members.
China Sea claimant states, to peacefully
create a positive dialogue to find a
resolution to the dispute. China’s calls on
the G20 to work together towards joint
Annemie Zimmermann is a Researcher in
progress are key in shaping the course of
the School of East Asian Studies and
future geopolitics, and it must be hoped
Department of Politics, University of
that future summits will continue to move,
with care, towards more meaningful
resolution of difficulties that prevent