The Buzz

Revealed: China's Forgotten Maritime Compromise

China has nine maritime neighbors (including Taiwan) but no settled maritime boundaries, due in part to Beijing’s unwillingness to specify its maritime claims. Only one partial exception to this imprecision exists: a boundary agreement with Vietnam to delimit the northern part of the Gulf of Tonkin and a fishery agreement establishing a joint fishing regime in that area, both reached in 2000.

The agreements offer both positive and negative lessons. At a minimum, they provide important precedents that should be more widely appreciated – foremost among them that it is possible for China to come to the bargaining table on maritime disputes. Meanwhile specific lessons can be applied to China’s bilateral maritime disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Koreas. Unfortunately the Tonkin agreements support only modest expectations for resolution of the complex, multilateral Spratly Islands disputes.

First, the good news:

1. The Tonkin agreements might have enabled future deals:

Leaders in both China and Vietnam authorized their diplomats to negotiate formal boundaries governing about 36,000 square nautical miles of productive fisheries and potentially lucrative hydrocarbons. The deal emerged from three separate rounds of negotiation (1974, 1978-1979, and 1992-2000), with the last being a whole-of-government effort featuring input from senior party leaders, provincial governments, various stakeholder agencies, and technical and scientific experts. Importantly, growing familiarity between negotiators did not breed contempt – rather, it helped establish organizational and individual connections that were indispensable to the final settlement. Wang Yi, the current PRC foreign minister, was China’s lead negotiator and presumably knows what is required, politically and organizationally, to achieve future settlements. Comparable, substantial investment of official time and political energy is possible and necessary for future deals.

2. China made significant compromises:

The 21 geographic points constituting the Sino-Vietnamese boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin divide it into two unequal parts, with 53.23 percent of the water lying on the Vietnamese side of the line. This compromise by China reflects the relative length of the Vietnamese coastline and the position of Bach Long Vi Island. That island was once the subject of a Sino-Vietnamese sovereignty dispute put to rest in 1957 when Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai dropped the Chinese claim. That strong Chinese leaders were once willing to make a deal over sovereignty that later facilitated a boundary resolution is a valuable precedent.

3. UNCLOS provided guidelines, but was not determinative:

The conclusive round of Sino-Vietnamese negotiations (1992-2000) was facilitated by the parties’ informal agreement in 1993 that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would furnish the basic principles to be applied to resolving maritime boundary disputes. They also agreed that international practice, equity, and relevant circumstances would be given appropriate weight in negotiations. The parties did not use their respective interpretations of the law of the sea as take-it-or-leave-it demands for comprehensive settlement. Rather, international law furnished several focal points for the two parties (who had not yet even ratified UNCLOS) to cooperate and delimit their respective territorial seas, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and continental shelves. This nuanced approach to legal norms allowed them to reach agreement even while “shelving” pesky problems such as rights over non-living resources like oil and gas.

4. The agreement gave partial effect to islands and reduced maritime entitlements:

The states’ overlapping EEZs in the area were given less than the maximum 200 nautical miles prescribed in UNCLOS. Further, Vietnam’s Bach Long Vi and Con Co Islands were given 25 percent and 50 percent effect, respectively, in drawing the demarcation line for those EEZs. This compromise established an immensely valuable precedent for future negotiations over Chinese maritime boundaries in the East and South China Seas. Partial effects would be especially valuable in the bilateral dispute with Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, which lie at the very southern end of a long potential maritime boundary and could be effectively ignored in delimitation. This move might prove even more useful in the bilateral dispute with Vietnam over the Paracel Islands, where mutual agreement to reduce (or ignore) entitlements for the Paracels would allow extension of the Tonkin demarcation line through that disputed area without addressing the question of sovereignty over the islands.

5. Domestic objections did not scuttle the deal:

Nationalist sentiments ran high in both China and Vietnam after the deal was announced. The four-year lag between the parties’ signing the agreements (2000) and putting them into effect (2004) is partly attributable to public protests, media criticism, and bureaucratic resistance to the compromises on both sides. Leaders in both countries mustered the political will to conclude the deal in spite of strong domestic objections, and could do so again if they truly wanted to.

Now for the bad news.

1. The boundary agreement covers only a small area: