In recent years, China became increasingly ready to assert and defend its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, where six other nations have competing claims. Beijing publicly challenged the legality of foreign oil companies' investments in Vietnam's offshore energy industry, emphasized its own rights over islands and waters far from the Chinese mainland, detained hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen near the Chinese-held Paracel Islands, and harassed Vietnamese and Philippine vessels conducting seismic surveys in waters that Beijing claims. Many East Asian countries saw China's behavior as a sign of the country's new willingness to adopt a more unilateral and confrontational posture in the region.  

Little noticed, however, has been China's recent adoption of a new -- and much more moderate -- approach. The primary goals of the friendlier policy are to restore China's tarnished image in East Asia and to reduce the rationale for a more active U.S. role there. 

The first sign of China's new approach came last June, when Hanoi dispatched a special envoy to Beijing for talks about the countries' various maritime disputes. The visit paved the way for an agreement in July 2011 between China and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to finally implement a declaration of a code of conduct they had originally drafted in 2002 after a series of incidents in the South China Sea. In that declaration, they agreed to "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes."

Since the summer, senior Chinese officials, especially top political leaders such as President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have repeatedly reaffirmed the late Deng Xiaoping's guidelines for dealing with China's maritime conflicts to focus on economic cooperation while delaying the final resolution of the underlying claims. In August 2011, for example, Hu echoed Deng's approach by stating that "the countries concerned may put aside the disputes and actively explore forms of common development in the relevant sea areas."

Authoritative Chinese-language media, too, has begun to underscore the importance of cooperation. Since August, the international department of People's Daily (under the pen name Zhong Sheng) has published several columns stressing the need to be less confrontational in the South China Sea. In January 2012, for example, Zhong Sheng discussed the importance of "pragmatic cooperation" to achieve "concrete results." Since the People's Daily is the official paper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, such articles should be interpreted as the party's attempts to explain its new policy to domestic readers, especially those working lower down in party and state bureaucracies.

In terms of actually setting aside disputes, China has made progress. In addition to the July consensus with ASEAN, in October China reached an agreement with Vietnam on "basic principles guiding the settlement of maritime issues." The accord stressed following international law, especially the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Since then, China and Vietnam have begun to implement the agreement by establishing a working group to demarcate and develop the southern portion of the Gulf of Tonkin near the disputed Paracel Islands.

China has also initiated or participated in several working-level meetings to address regional concerns about Beijing's assertiveness. Just before the East Asian Summit last November, China announced that it would establish a three billion yuan ($476 million) fund for China-ASEAN maritime cooperation on scientific research, environmental protection, freedom of navigation, search and rescue, and combating transnational crimes at sea. The following month, China convened several workshops on oceanography and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and in January it hosted a meeting with senior ASEAN officials to discuss implementing the 2002 code of conduct declaration. The breadth of proposed cooperative activities indicates that China's new approach is probably more than just a mere stalling tactic.

Beyond China's new efforts to demonstrate that it is ready to pursue a more cooperative approach, the country has also halted many of the more assertive behaviors that had attracted attention between 2009 and 2011. For example, patrol ships from the Bureau of Fisheries Administration have rarely detained and held any Vietnamese fishermen since 2010. (Between 2005 and 2010, China detained 63 fishing boats and their crews, many of which were not released until a hefty fine was paid.) And Vietnamese and Philippine vessels have been able to conduct hydrocarbon exploration without interference from China. (Just last May, Chinese patrol ships cut the towed sonar cable of a Vietnamese ship to prevent it from completing a seismic survey.) More generally, China has not obstructed any recent exploration-related activities, such as Exxon's drilling in October of an exploratory well in waters claimed by both Vietnam and China. Given that China retains the capability to interfere with such activities, its failure to do so suggests a conscious choice to be a friendlier neighbor. 

The question, of course, is why did the Chinese shift to a more moderate approach? More than anything, Beijing has come to realize that its assertiveness was harming its broader foreign policy interests. One principle of China's current grand strategy is to maintain good ties with great powers, its immediate neighbors, and the developing world. Through its actions in the South China Sea, China had undermined this principle and tarnished the cordial image in Southeast Asia that it had worked to cultivate in the preceding decade. It had created a shared interest among countries there in countering China -- and an incentive for them to seek support from Washington. In so doing, China's actions provided a strong rationale for greater U.S. involvement in the region and inserted the South China Sea disputes into the U.S.-Chinese relationship.

By last summer, China had simply recognized that it had overreached. Now, Beijing wants to project a more benign image in the region to prevent the formation of a group of Asian states allied against China, reduce Southeast Asian states' desire to further improve ties with the United States, and weaken the rationale for a greater U.S. role in these disputes and in the region.

So far, Beijing's new approach seems to be working, especially with Vietnam. China and Vietnam have deepened their political relationship through frequent high-level exchanges. Visits by the Vietnamese Communist Party general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, to Beijing in October 2011 and by the Chinese heir apparent, Xi Jinping, to Hanoi in December 2011 were designed to soothe spirits and protect the broader bilateral relationship from the unresolved disputes over territory in the South China Sea. In October, the two also agreed to a five-year plan to increase their bilateral trade to $60 billion by 2015. And just last month, foreign ministers from both countries agreed to set up working groups on functional issues such as maritime search and rescue and establish a hotline between the two foreign ministries, in addition to starting talks over the demarcation of the Gulf of Tonkin.

Even if it is smooth sailing now, there could be choppy waters ahead. Months of poor weather have held back fishermen and oil companies throughout the South China Sea. But when fishing and hydrocarbon exploration activities resume in the spring, incidents could increase. In addition, China's new approach has raised expectations that it must now meet -- for example, by negotiating a binding code of conduct to replace the 2002 declaration and continuing to refrain from unilateral actions.

Nevertheless, because the new approach reflects a strategic logic, it might endure, signaling a more significant Chinese foreign policy shift. As the 18th Party Congress draws near, Chinese leaders want a stable external environment, lest an international crisis upset the arrangements for this year's leadership turnover. And even after new party heads are selected, they will likely try to avoid international crises while consolidating their power and focusing on China's domestic challenges.

China's more moderate approach in the South China Sea provides further evidence that China will seek to avoid the type of confrontational policies that it had adopted toward the United States in 2010. When coupled with Xi's visit to Washington last month, it also suggests that the United States need not fear Beijing's reaction to its strategic pivot to Asia, which entails enhancing U.S. security relationships throughout the region. Instead, China is more likely to rely on conventional diplomatic and economic tools of statecraft than attempt a direct military response. Beijing is also unlikely to be more assertive if that sustains Southeast Asian countries' desires to further deepen ties with the United States. Whether the new approach sticks in the long run, it at least demonstrates that China, when it wants to, can recalibrate its foreign policy. That is good news for stability in the region.

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  • M. TAYLOR FRAVEL is an associate professor of political science and a member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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