To what extent do the disputes in the South China Sea constitute a significant threat to stability in the Asia-Pacific region? How can these rivalries be better managed in the future?

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Dan Erwin Bagaporo's picture

The rise of China as one of the dominant world powers has put it on an inevitable collision course with a world order still struggling to adapt to a multi-polar system. Recent developments in the South China Sea, combined with simultaneous leadership transitions and an unstable global economy have all combined to rattle an already fragile status-quo. All the while, the Sino–American rivalry looms over the background, and as tensions mount, many are wondering if the South China Sea will be the next military flashpoint of the 21st century.

Conflicts in the South China Sea

The South China Sea territorial dispute has been a highly controversial issue stretching back to the 1900s. However, tensions have escalated in recent years, catapulting the once relatively placid region into the international spotlight. Internal dynamics, such as increasing nationalism at home, and dwindling petroleum reserves and fish stocks have limited diplomatic options, and forced governments to assume a more assertive role.1

A closer look at the dispute reveals its increasingly complex nature. China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over everything encompassed in its nine-dash line map (including the entire Paracel and Spratly island chain). This constantly produces schism between China and its rival claimants. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all claim parts that overlap China’s, as well as each other’s. In 2009, Vietnam and Malaysia made a joint submission on territorial claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental shelf. China, in response, submitted its own claim with the nine-dash line map which cuts through Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).1 Ever since, claimant countries have been struggling to encroach their way into the islands, most of the time evoking more tension.

Harassment and detainment of foreign fishermen by authorities has also been a regular occurrence. Claimant countries seemingly suffer from a lack of ability to control private actors. For China’s part, many equate these kinds of standoffs to its lack of centralized control over its competing law-enforcement agencies and administrative departments. A report by the International Crisis group in 2012 revealed that Chinese actions are the result of several competing government agencies, rather than a centralized effort directed by Beijing.

Despite the lack of seeming lack of centralized control regarding the South China Sea dispute, the effects are just the same. Territorial disputes have spilled over to economic and political relations, especially between China, the Philippines and Vietnam. For instance, China quarantined imported tropical fruits from the Philippines to coerce it relinquish claims over the Spratlys.2 However, economic relations between China and other claimants playing a relatively passive role such as Malaysia, and Brunei have not been significantly affected, thus far. The trend seems to be that China is trying to minimize the number of assertive actors in the disputes by “going easy” on some of the claimants.

In international politics, the most notable event related to the issue was during the 45th Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting where for the first time in its history, a joint communique was not issued. This was due to disagreements over the final draft where Cambodia, ASEAN Chair for 2012, rejected the proposal of including the Scarborough Shoal incident in the discussion. Many contend that Cambodia acted in light of significant pressure from Beijing (being that the two are very close allies). The resulting fallout from the event however has exposed deep divisions within the ASEAN community, with its members carefully balancing their stand, with their important economic and political relationship with Beijing.

China and Japan

The long-standing rivalry between China and Japan has also reached new heights because of the dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands. Recent events have been a cause of concern as the two countries have been engaged in a gradually increasing show of force. During the first 3 quarters of 2012 alone, Japan scrambled planes a total of 160 times against its Chinese counterparts flying near disputed areas.3 Chinese ships are also frequently seen around the disputed islands, more often now after Tokyo had “bought” them from a “private owner”, in what Beijing has described as an “illegal and invalid” purchase.4 China has repeatedly threatened to impose economic sanctions, which would be a double-edged sword, but would likely hurt the Japanese economy more. Japanese owned car companies are already curtailing production in China as anti-Japanese protests around the country become more frequent.

Efforts at Resolution

Amidst all of the show of force between China and Japan however, no actual hostilities have broken out. Both have already taken measures to diffuse the tension build up. The modus operandi for both usually involves non-lethal means such as maritime and coast guard vessel standoffs, and of course, the ever-present political mudslinging between Tokyo and Beijing. Still, relations have been more strained than ever since World War II.

Furthermore, international efforts to resolve the South China Sea disputes have not gone very far. China prefers to settle the issues bilaterally, rejecting multilateral talks, and arbitration by the International Tribunal on Law of the Sea (ITLOS), and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The political statement drafted by the ASEAN and China in 2002 known as the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) did not make a significant impact because it lacked certain provisions like that were too contentious to include. Additionally, the DOC is not legally binding, lacking the clout to become a legitimate foundation for any resolution. ASEAN and China are still in the process of drafting a new document called the Code of Conduct (COC).

The Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU), a tripartite agreement in 2005 involving the Philippines, Vietnam and China fell apart after political unrest broke out in Manila, over the alleged “sellout” of Philippine territorial claims by government officials in exchange for Chinese financial aid5.

For its part though, China has been trying to repair its damaged reputation with its neighbors. High-level bilateral talks as well as continuing cooperation with the ASEAN in trying to implement the DOC have shown that China is still open to a possible compromise. Just recently, China expressed its openness to conduct a joint exploration of oil and mineral riches together with the Philippines in the disputed islands. Its neighbors though still take any offer it gives with a grain of salt.

US Involvement

China’s rival claimants have been working hard to internationalize the issue in order to gain more leverage. A critical strategy by involves developing closer relations with the United States in order to act as a counterbalance against growing Chinese military strength. Joint military exercises held by the Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines and other countries in the region together with the US have significantly increased in frequency over the past few years.

Washington, for its part, has been more than happy to provide assistance, seeing it as a way to reassert its dominance in Southeast Asia. The US is also quick to condemn any unilateral action by China, and has even offered to help improve the defensive capabilities of its allies in the region. This has strained relations between the two superpowers. China in turn has been quick to rebuke US involvement in any of the territorial disputes, and has also threatened to impose economic sanctions on several occasions.

Tying it all together

The South China Sea territorial dispute has become one of the most problematic issues in recent times. Current trends as well as complications resulting from China’s rise and its conflict with anxious neighbors have seemingly put any solution out of reach in the near future. However, there are still steps that rival claimants can take in order minimize the chance of major conflict.

Before any international agreement is hastily signed, claimant countries must first resolve internal hindrances to treaties. This most especially refers to China. A good preliminary step for the country would be to strictly implement a more centralized command of its maritime law enforcement and administrative agencies. After it has done this, it can now proceed to engage in agreements with other nations without the high prospect of one of its own violating any treaty provisions.

Additionally, all claimant countries should limit if not stop the negative propaganda surrounding the dispute. The South China Sea issue is better perceived by people if it is seen as a source of cooperation rather than competition.1 Disproportionate national sentiment stemming from negative propaganda about the disputes allows less room for movement for government officials, and makes diplomacy difficult.

Claimant countries can choose to coordinate a joint exploration of resources in order to arrive at a win-win scenario, instead of insidiously encroaching their way into oil sources, and ending up having to forfeit them when other claimant countries cry foul. Lastly, all countries involved must work to deescalate tensions and strive for resource sharing and regional cooperation. This could be done by making and implementing a legally binding code of conduct with legitimate mechanisms for settling disputes. If these steps can be done, then probably, the prospect of a stable multi-polar world is not that far off.