The Stable Waves of the South China Sea and its Rivalries

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Ernest Tan's picture

The Stable Waves of the South China Sea and its Rivalries

Introduction

With approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in reserves1, it is no wonder that the South China Sea is a hotbed for territory and sovereignty disputes among countries2 in the region. In addition to these highly coveted hydrocarbons resources, the “winner” will have control over one of the world’s busiest sea lanes3 and the authority to maintain or restrict freedom of navigation in these waters.

Animosity among the parties to this dispute4 grew decades ago. While tensions have never escalated to a war, the use of force was not unheard of. In 1974, the Chinese seized the Paracels from the Vietnamese, which lost more than 70 soldiers. 14 years later, about 60 Vietnamese sailors perished during a skirmish with the Chinese in the Spratlys islands5.

More recently in early 2012, a Philippines warship was involved in a standoff with two Chinese vessels. Both parties accused each other of intrusions in the Scarborough Shoal. In late 2012, Vietnam accused Chinese boats of sabotaging an exploration operation by cutting a seismic cable being towed behind a Vietnamese boat6.

The complex and long history of this dispute begets the question: To what extent do the disputes in the South China Sea constitute a significant threat to stability in the Asia-Pacific, and how can these rivalries be better managed in the future?

Anatomy of Stability

While the unresolved dispute may be of legitimate concern, it is also not difficult to realise that stability has been present for sometime. Noteworthy is the fact that there has been no armed conflict since 1988. Furthermore, trade in the Asia-Pacific region has evidently flourished over the years, testament by the various Free Trade Agreements (FTA) signed between countries in the region, including an ASEANChina FTA (ACFTA). All these progress might not be possible without stability.

This essay argues that the dispute in the South China Sea only constitutes a significant threat to the stability in the Asia-Pacific to a small extent. The main reason lies in that stability is not threatened by disputes per se, but rather, by divergent interests. Although the dispute is an example of a divergent interest, the parties to the dispute have far more convergent interests to pursue, which will lead to stability.

It might be useful to examine the very notion of “stability” and what constitutes it. This essay postulates that economic progress is the primary driver of stability. Disputes could undermine stability, but as long as there are many more mutually beneficial interests that lead to economic progress, instability is an unlikely outcome.

The intuition is simple – When parties have more common interests to pursue, they have more to lose should they allow disputes to threaten stability. $5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea each year7. In the event of a major conflict, ships would likely divert their routes and this would hurt regional economies, rendering parties unable to benefit from the South China Sea’s riches. Hence, it is in the interest of parties to demonstrate that the South China Sea is safe for trade.

The unfavourable costs of conflict vis-à-vis unclear benefits help mitigate the prospects of a major conflict8. Moreover, countries are increasingly interdependent on each other9, thus making conflicts unlikely. Furthermore, countries like China has more pressing priorities in economic and political development, and would not seek a conflict that would cause a distraction. It is also paramount for China to avoid militarisation to prove that it is indeed seeking a peaceful rise as an emerging superpower, so as not to draw any further suspicions from the US.

It should also be recognised that the Asia-Pacific region involves other major countries such as Japan, South Korea and even Australia. In the unlikely event that a conflict breaks out, the Asia-Pacific region would not destabilise as a whole, albeit resulting in a potentially devastating outcome should it involve China.

Nonetheless, stability should never be taken for granted. Although countries would not want to be involved in a conflict, the same could be said even if a conflict occurs. Using a game theory approach, it is likely that third parties would weigh the benefits and costs of intervention in the event of a conflict and decide that it is not worth intervening due to the high costs. A potential aggressor, knowing this outcome, could safely resort to the use of force.

However, any worries about a conflict breaking out would be unfounded. Moving forward, countries have even more to lose with the anticipated conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), leading to the prospect of a Free Trade Agreement of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). These compelling reasons should ensure stability in the Asia-Pacific in the near to middle term future. Hence, the disputes in the South China Sea only constitute a significant threat in the Asia-Pacific region to a small extent.

Quest for Friendly Rivalries

As much as the dispute is argued to be non-threatening, it still exists as a “thorn in the flesh” of the relationships among the parties. Parties seemingly view this dispute as a sticking point and often maintain it as a separate agenda. It would perhaps be prudent to always consider the bigger picture and not allow just one aspect to dictate the health of their relationships. They should also recognise disputes as mere friendly rivalries and focus on the many other areas for cooperation.

One tested and proven approach to foreign relations and disputes is the use of “Smart Power” – widely employed by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – which entails a full range of tools ranging from diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural. On a similar note, parties should focus on multilateral cooperation, especially in economic development, such as the potential FTAAP, to reap greater benefits.

On a more pressing note, it is imperative to work on resolving current impasses, chiefly on how this dispute should be managed. China is adamant on a bilateral approach, believing it gives them most clout as an emerging superpower. However, other parties from ASEAN prefer a multilateral approach.

This essay advocates opting for a fair channel to manage the dispute, such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), or minimally, arbitration provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). These approaches may not be the most beneficial for every party, but it will be the most just for all. In order to entice China to agree to a multilateral approach, carrots could be dangled10, using the approach of “Smart Power”.

At the very least, parties ought to work towards the conclusion of a binding Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China, following the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties on South China Sea (DOC) that was signed in 2002. To further ensure stability, current military cooperation should be continued to act as a deterrent.

Nonetheless, this essay acknowledges the intricate difficulties in the abovementioned proposals. China faces a similar dispute in the East China Sea. Hence, they are naturally cautious as any actions taken in one dispute could affect the status quo of the other. However, this creates an impetus for China to resolve the South China Sea dispute immediately through a multilateral approach, so that they can focus on the more complicated East China Sea dispute.

Nationalistic sentiments displayed by parties also present an obstacle to conciliation. These sentiments are usually a reflection of how citizens feel, but nevertheless, pride can be engineered to stem from elsewhere, such as through higher GDP growth, which is a more worthy goal to pursue.

Conclusion

The South China Sea dispute may have reached a stalemate after so many decades, but fortunately, the Asia-Pacific region still has peace and stability, and has even prospered. The current geopolitical state and the focus on economic progress has created “mechanisms” to ensure stability in this region. Nonetheless, the presence of disputes creates unhealthy relationships among countries and ought to be managed delicately.

Stability can be taken as a norm because it is in the common interests of all parties to ensure a safe South China Sea so as to reap the present and future benefits from trade – a compelling incentive to avoid conflict. As long as there are more mutually benefiting interests, parties have more to lose in the event of a conflict than the attractive resources they gain from claiming sovereignty.

Although the dispute does not threaten stability, it should be noted that unmanaged disputes serve as a time bomb. This dispute could be taken into account together with economic cooperation and other aspects of diplomacy so that countries see beyond this “sticking point”. Dispute resolutions do not always make every party happy, but what is important is for the resolution to be fair. Hence, using a multilateral approach is strongly advocated.

Endnotes

 

1. See South China Sea. (2013, February 7). U.S. Energy Information Administration. Retrieved from http://www.eia.gov/countries/regionstopics. cfm?fips=SCS

2. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

3. Over a quarter of the world’s trade pass through each. See Ba, A. D. (2011). Staking Claims and Making Waves in the South China Sea: How Troubled Are the Waters?. Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International & Strategic Affairs, 33(3), 269-291. doi: 10.1355/cs33-3a

4. Dispute refers to the contest for the Spratlys and Paracels island chains and surrounding ocean areas.

5. See Q&A: South China Sea dispute. (2013, January 22). BBC News Asia. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349

6. Ibid.

7. See Glaser, B. S. (2012, April). Armed Clash in the South China Sea. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from http://www.cfr.org/east-asia/armed-clashsouth- china-sea/p27883

8. See Ba, A. D. (2011). Staking Claims and Making Waves in the South China Sea: How Troubled Are the Waters?. Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International & Strategic Affairs, 33(3), 269-291. doi: 10.1355/cs33-3a

9. For example, the US relies on China for cheap labour supply while China relies on the US market for export. See Rosenberg, D. (2010). GOVERNING THE SOUTH CHINA SEA: FROM FREEDOM OF THE SEAS TO OCEAN ENCLOSURE MOVEMENTS. Harvard Asia Quarterly, 12(3/4), 4-12. Retrieved from http://tailieu.tapchithoidai.org/Governing_South_China_Sea.pdf

10. For example, offer more economic benefits in other areas, such as in trade negotiations, or participation in other forums as recognition of their emerging power, especially ASEAN+1 platforms without the participation of the US.

References: 
  1. Ba, A. D. (2011). Staking Claims and Making Waves in the South China Sea: How Troubled Are the Waters?. Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International & Strategic Affairs, 33(3), 269-291. doi: 10.1355/cs33-3a Boonpriwan, L. (2012). The South China Sea dispute: Evolution, Conflict Management and Resolution. Annual International Conference on International Relations and Development. Retrieved from http://www.icird.org/2012/files/papers/Lalita%20Boonpriwan.pdf
  2. Evans, G. (2012, July 26). Calming the South China Sea. Project Syndicate. Retrieved from http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/calming-the-southchina- sea
  3. Glaser, B. S. (2012, April). Armed Clash in the South China Sea. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from http://www.cfr.org/east-asia/armed-clash-south-chinasea/ p27883
  4. Nye, J. S. (2012, September 3). Asian Nationalism at Sea. Project Syndicate. Retrieved from http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/asian-nationalismat- sea-by-joseph-s--nye 7 Q&A: South China Sea dispute. (2013, January 22). BBC News Asia. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349
  5. Rosenberg, D. (2010). GOVERNING THE SOUTH CHINA SEA: FROM FREEDOM OF THE SEAS TO OCEAN ENCLOSURE MOVEMENTS. Harvard Asia Quarterly, 12(3/4), 4-12. Retrieved from http://tailieu.tapchithoidai.org/Governing_South_China_Sea.pdf
  6. Stirring up the South China Sea (II): Regional Responses. (2012, July 24). International Crisis Group. Retrieved from http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/north-east-asia/china/229-sti... south-china-sea-ii-regional-responses.aspx South China Sea. (2013, February 7). U.S. Energy Information Administration. Retrieved from http://www.eia.gov/countries/regions-topics.cfm?fips=SCS
  7. Xu, B. (2013, January 11). South China Sea Tensions. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from http://www.cfr.org/china/south-china-sea-tensions/p29790