China Against the World? A Bi-lateral Approach to Conflict Resolution

Touraj Riazi Analysis Leave a Comment

Foreign policy in 2017 has provided media outlets with no shortage of sensational fodder. Attention grabbing events with immediate implications occur everyday in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Zimbabwe and other parts of the world. Consequently, certain events and declarations with potentially long-term strategic implications by states as significant China are not given the attention their significance merits. One such event is the Rohingya crisis, which involves both Myanmar and Bangladesh, and showcases China’s perception of how the crisis can best be resolved.

At a press briefing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that a peaceful resolution of the dispute won’t occur unless actions taken through the Security Council “help” the “bi-lateral [emphasis added] cooperation” between Bangladesh and Myanmar. China is rarely outspoken on issues that its not involved in; but, Beijing’s preference of having a bi-lateral conflict resolution mechanism is consistent with its attitude towards other disputes it is directly involved in. That China is openly advocating applying conflict resolution mechanisms it favours to conflicts it is not directly involved in may be a signal that China’s preference to resolve its own disputes bilaterally is not an arbitrary one.

China has particularly sought to impress upon the U.S. that its principle of bilateral dispute resolution is the correct one to ensure a peaceful outcome between multiple claimants in the South China Sea. Prior to Trump’s arrival in China earlier this month, China made sure to repeat its long standing position that if the U.S., as an “external party”, wants to help not “cause problems” in the South China Sea, it should recognize the South China Sea is not an “issue between China and the United States.” Trump’s accommodating treatment of China seemed to vindicate China’s position when in the space of a few weeks it announced recently concluded agreements with the Philippines and Vietnam (arrived at separately) based on the principle of bilateral conflict resolution.

China’s principle of bilateral conflict resolution has also formed a core component of Sino-American relations since their resumption under President Nixon. The strategic ambiguity surrounding the One China policy has allowed China to uphold the interpretation that its interactions with Taiwan are an internal matter and as such will not be affected by foreign influence or pressure. China is keenly aware of the one sided nature of bilateral negotiations when one disputant is, by orders of magnitude, more militarily powerful than the other. If China continues defending its principle of bilateral conflict resolution and begins to apply it across a larger geographic area, major strategic consequences for the Eurasian continent will follow.

One possible reason China has persistently sought bilateral resolutions to disputes is simply to buy time.  Under Xi Jinping, China has initiated a massive military modernization program whose final objective is to give the People’s Liberation Army the necessary capabilities and training to win “limited wars under high-tech conditions.” In testament to the program’s success, China recently announced it is entering into service its first stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20. Media outlets observed it possesses capabilities on par with the F-22.

China’s vocal insistence on the settlement of disputes by only the relevant parties may be allowing China to complete its military modernization program. Once China’s military power can guarantee the political and economical subjugation of East Asia, China can implement and enforce general principles of regional conduct which would clearly favour it in a region of global significance. (China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement is an example of such general principles of conduct).

China’s other possible motive in pushing for the localization of conflict resolution is connected with its One Belt One Road initiative. In short, One Belt One Road will see China spearhead an attempt to establish economic hegemony over Eurasia. Many of the countries in the path of China’s Belt project are fraught with geopolitical insecurity and China has not hesitated to establish military bases near areas of strategic importance such as Djibouti and Pakistan. If China believes conflicts within regions encompassed by its One Road project would endanger economic investments, it may continue insisting on the principle of bilateral conflict resolution until it has the military and economic leverage to enforce it.

Given the speculative nature of this particular point and the absence of any clarification on what the bilateral resolution of disputes means, one can only question if China will ultimately be the arbiter in situations where two countries fail to bilaterally resolve their dispute. Chinese leaders do not possess the risible naivety which leads one to believe adopting a bilateral framework of conflict resolution would automatically resolve the conflict in question. Nevertheless, China has not publicly offered a solution to problems such as Rohingya or the South China Sea in the event its proposal of having the two nations involved resolve the issue fails.

It is clear that no matter what China’s long-term motives in its insistence on bilateral conflict resolution may be, continued success will only embolden members of the Chinese elite in the future. Unless the United States ensures China’s actions in areas of global strategic importance are in accord with international law, it risks having China incrementally impose its own preferences throughout East Asia. Ensuring these disagreements do not escalate into a military conflict between the United States and China is a task for the leaders of both countries.

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