In late July, Chinese President Xi Jinping shared his views on sea power and maritime territorial disputes. Beijing is amenable to “shelving disputes and carrying out joint development” in waters such as the South China Sea, where, according to the official line, it enjoys “indisputable sovereignty.” It will employ “peaceful means and negotiations to settle disputes and strive to safeguard peace and stability,” but it won’t “abandon its legitimate rights and interests.” Beijing asserts sovereignty over the waters, islands, and atolls within what it calls the “nine-dashed line,” a line that encloses the vast majority of the South China Sea, including huge swaths of the exclusive economic zones belonging to Southeast Asian states.
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Xi appears to be saying that China is prepared to postpone resolution of these disputes for the sake of working alongside Southeast Asians to tap the region’s natural resources, and that it is willing to negotiate. That sounds reasonable. But he also seems to be saying that China has ruled out compromise and will continue building up its maritime strength to enforce its will. If Xi is sincere in all these statements, then the only real question left is when Asian powers will acquiesce meekly. In other words, China’s neighbors need not formally surrender control of the waters and features within the nine-dashed line yet — but in the end Beijing will give no ground. I suppose making Asians an offer they can’t refuse is one way of getting to yes.