While this offer hasn’t been taken up, the US intervention prompted Beijing to “recalibrate” its stance, says Susan Shirk, a former US diplomat and China expert who runs the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California in San Diego. As a rising military power, China wants to avoid a pro-US tilt in the region. “This recalibration is about trying to get back to a more pragmatic and cooperative approach that China has, by and large, pursued since the 1990s,” she says.
But regional governments have made scant progress on resolving overlapping claims on two island chains. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a broad code of conduct with China in 2002 as a way to calm tensions. But subsequent talks to agree on the rules have broken down amid criticism that ASEAN is too divided to act. Asian diplomats say China has tried to pick off weaker countries and head off a firm joint position on the South China Sea. Last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said “internationalizing” the issue would only make it harder to solve.