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China’s Two-Channel Approach to South China Sea Disputes

Carlyle A. Thayer, C3S Paper No. 2059

Recently, China has put forth a two-channel initiative, or two-orbit approach, tohandle South China Sea disputes. However, China has not yet clarified this new approach. On the one hand, China states it will negotiate with each of the ASEAN members that has sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea (Spratly Islands). On the other hand, China states it will negotiate with the whole ASEAN, but excluding state members that do not have disputes with China.

How do you assess this new Chinese approach? What are the views and attitudes of countries of countries both in and outside the region? In particular, what are the views of ASEAN members that have direct interests in the South China Sea. What are the views of non-Southeast Asian states that have interests in the South China Sea?

How should Vietnam respond to the Chinese initiative and to the viewpoints and attitudes adopted by other countries?

ANSWER: There has been no apparent change in China’s long standing policy that sovereignty disputes must be settled bilaterally between the countries concerned. At the same time China is willing to enter consultations – not negotiations – with ASEAN to discuss how to implement the cooperative programs outlined in the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). China has also been willing to enter into consultations with all the ASEAN states on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. But China insists that the DOC be implemented first and that progress on the COC must be by consensus. China has not tried to exclude non claimant states from these discussions. There has been a move in ASEAN for the claimant states to meet and discuss a common position on a COC and then discuss this with the other ASEAN states. Brunei has declined to attend the two meetings of the claimant states (Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam) that have been held.

ASEAN foreign ministers and government leaders have reiterated their support for an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct and Thailand, as country-ordinator, has tried to increase the number of working level meetings with China this year before Thayer Consultancy ABN # 65 648 097 123 2 its mandate as country co-ordinator expires.ASEAN Dialogue Partners – the United States, Japan, Australia, EU, India, support ASEAN’s position.

At the moment China is playing down disputes in the South China Sea so as not to interfere with its hosting of the ASEAN Summit. Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “China’s Two-Channel Approach to South China Sea Disputes,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, October 7, 2014.

All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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