THE MURKY SPOT IN THE BASIN
The South China Sea Disputes, Stability in the Asia-Pacific Region,
and Prospects for Dispute Management
A few months ago, I joined an international youth program that aims to promote mutual understanding and friendship among the youth of Japan and ASEAN countries. Participating youth had the chance to know more and discuss about each other’s perspectives aboard a ship that visited seven cities in East Asia. Occasionally, we would just relax on the ship’s deck while watching the sun beautifully setting over the calm blue-grayish waters of the South China Sea. It was an awesome and enriching experience to establish ‘diplomatic’ ties with fellow Asians.
This is also representative of the economic relations among countries in the larger Asia-Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea (SCS) area.i Its dynamic and cooperative approach to economic matters has attracted more partnerships with various countries and organizations across the globe. However, this is just one side of the story; Concurrent with such developments is the brewing tension therein. This precisely makes the SCS a murky spot in the Asia-Pacific basin.
Six parties claim in whole or in part the features in the South China Sea – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan.ii Many incidents prove how tense and perilous the SCS case has become. Most notable, however, are those that involve China and Vietnam over the Paracels and some maritime features in the Spratlys; and China and the Philippines over a so-called ‘regime of islands’ that include the western section of the Spratlys, the Kalayaan Island Group, and Scarborough Shoal.iii The intensity of disputes has varied over time especially when involved parties need to attend to other core national interests. There were points of atypical sagging of friction between parties; However, it must be emphasized that with the assumed economic revival of China since the late 1970s, and its constant military enhancement, such frictions have increased anxiety over regional stability and security.
This brings us to an analysis of the repercussions of the complex situation to the stability of Asia-Pacific region particularly in the South China Sea area. This question on stability is very much related to the presumption on geopolitical power-shifts. For thorough scrutiny, one may consider China-ASEAN relations vis a vis the US as a springboard to analyzing the future of geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific.
Asia-Pacific’s, particularly East Asia’s intra-regional stability will depend on the approach that China will use to respond to the geopolitical issues and challenges in the region. Its economic partnership with ASEANiv merely sugarcoats its political and military ambitions, and to some extent also undermines ASEAN’s capacity as a regional bloc. As expected, it will continue to challenge the influence of its main rival in the region – the US.
According to one scholar, Obama’s ‘Asia-Pacific pivot’ ‘has strained U.S.-China relations as the new leadership in Beijing sees Obama's policies as an effort to contain China's rise.’ In addition, it is assumed that “the pivot has increased political competition between the United States and China in Southeast Asia.”v Welcome to the resurgence of Cold War’s realist approaches – containment, balance-of-power (alliance), and big power competition. Given such patterns, the situation remains intense. Could this further make the waters murkier? Apparently.
Due to growing suspicions and resentment, a new phase of arms race will possibly commence. The US may call for the support of Japan and South Korea, its long-time allies in East Asia. China on the other hand will require the backing-up of ASEAN allies, hence causing more painful divisions within the regional bloc. North Korea, to which China have had political tango sessions, will certainly adhere to Chinese sentiments against US involvement. And although their individual nuclear weapon power is still assumed well inferior to that of the US, a combination is enough to pose significant threat to the global military superpower. Increasing anxiety, security threats, and national rather than regional interests will therefore provoke countries to seek intensive military enhancement. That murky spot – the squabble over control of sea lanes, trade routes, and hydrocarbon deposits – is thus flammable, and may spark yet another big war.
There have been several proposals from various groups (government, think tanks, academia) on how to best manage the disputes.vi But given the complex and nature of the disputes, the best – practical, feasible, and beneficial – means will be most relevant at present. Perhaps, an organized way to better understand the most probable recommendations is to categorize them into three approaches: legal, diplomatic, and political.vii
One may suppose that the present situation requires a legal approach. Experts in international law would argue that states will surely promote, protect, and secure national interests according to existing international legal provisions. Realists would assert that the nature of states as self-seeking entities may turn them into aggressive actors especially when their national interests are at stake. For one, China’s stubborn behavior on the issue provoked the Philippines to bring the territorial row to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in April 2012. To this, China’s initial response was low-key.viii Although a legal approach appears to be feasible, it will be very costly, and will not be beneficial to involved parties due to zero-sum outcome. It may also incite animosity between parties, making the matter worse.
To make a diplomatic approach effective, parties will have to commit their active participation toward peaceful resolution of conflicts. To this end, the suggested 2002 Declaration of Conduct must be elevated to a Code of Conduct which will therefore hold China and ASEAN to a higher degree of obligation to resolve conflicts through diplomatic and peaceful means. However, China has consistently insisted that it can only accommodate bilateral talks with ASEAN countries, rejecting any multilateral negotiations, as it did in the past. While this diplomatic approach seems practical and beneficial to all parties, it is not feasible considering China’s bold stance on the matter.
The most probable option is the political track. With this approach, idealists aim to transform the SCS from a zone of conflict into a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation, in accordance with the UNCLOS. Concrete recommendations include: de-militarization of the contested sea-lanes and replacement of military units by maritime/coast guard assets to guarantee open, safe and inclusive navigation thru the Asia-Pacific’s commercial passages; joint development of navigational aids, lighthouses, and typhoon shelters; and SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) mechanisms like search-and-rescue capabilities contributed by the concerned claimant-nations and other countries.ix In addition, marine research and marine environmental protection efforts may also be undertaken.x Apparently, this option does not guarantee conflict resolution, understood to be permanent or long-term in nature. Political approach is mainly preventive diplomacy which aim is not necessarily resolving a dispute but rather mitigate any escalation through confidence-building measures.
Nonetheless, it may be considered the best approach insofar as practical, feasible, and beneficial outcomes are concerned. It is expected that ASEAN and China will reap not just economic returns due to cooperation, but also enjoy a secure region conducive to other collaborative activities.
The South China Sea area seems murky amidst the vast basin of the Asia-Pacific region. If something’s unclear, a solution should be applied. The main actors in the disputes will have to act responsibly on the issue as soon as possible before the tiny spot ignites and spread the fire over the perilous sea.
“Impossible is nothing.”
- [i] The three million square kilometers South China Sea is considered the maritime heart of the dynamic Southeast Asian region. In comparison, its size is roughly two thirds of the combined land territory of all the ASEAN states. Marine resources abound while hydrocarbon deposits are assumed to be lavishly reserved underneath the pristine waters. It is also one of the busiest sea lanes and trade routes in the world. Much promise is found in this rich region yet there’s also apprehension caused by squabble over abundant resources.
- [ii] China fervently claims all areas enclosed in its nine-dash lines based on various official Chinese maps and documents. Taiwan's claims are similar to those of China. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all base their claims on the continental shelf principle and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) provision in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In addition, the Philippines and Vietnam enhance their claims based on history.
- [iii] Some of the most recent incidents between the PRC and the two ASEAN states that received remarkable attention are the following: a.) On June 9, 2011, a Chinese fishing vessel, escorted by two fisher enforcement vessels, cut the cables of a Vietnamese exploration vessel which was undertaking seismic survey within Vietnam’s continental shelf in the SCS; b.) On June 15, 2011, the Philippines (PHL) was reported to pull what it called ‘foreign’ markers from disputed waters in the sea, after accusing China of undermining peace in the sea by sending vessels near Reed bank to intimidate rival claimant states; c.) This was swiftly followed by the deployment of Chinese battleships in the disputed areas in the SCS and the conduct of live-fire naval exercises in SCS by the Vietnamese navy, Adding to the rising tension was the firebrand rhetoric from both sides accusing one another of aggression and undermining their sovereignty ; and d.) In April 2012, the Philippines and China were locked in a standoff in Scarborough Reef after the Chinese prevented the arrest of Chinese poachers in the area.
- Source: Cordero, Jean. Territorial dispute in South China Sea tops news of 2012. December 31, 2012. Link provided below: http://apdforum.com/en_GB/article/rmiap/articles/online/features/2012/12.... Accessed on February 9, 2013. These recent disputes were preceded by intermittent skirmishes such as in 1974 when China seized military installations occupied by Vietnam and has constantly reasserted its claims to the Paracel Islands. This was followed by another show of military force in 1988. In the succeeding years, China and the Philippines, although enjoying healthy economic relations, have had an ambiguous and somewhat awkward diplomatic relations due to occasional navy stand-offs and Chinese fishermen held accountable for illegal smuggling of aquatic resources. Source: Timeline: Disputes in the South China Sea, Key moments in the territorial disputes and intermittent skirmishes. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/world/special/south-china-sea-timel.... Accessed on February 9, 2013.
- [iv] According to Chinese economic officials, ASEAN may become China’s top trading partner by 2015 and that the latter’s trade with the regional bloc has increased and may even increase faster than with the US and EU. Source: Chang, Bao. ASEAN, China to become top trade partners in China Daily. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-04/20/content_15094898.htm. Accessed on February 13, 2013. While it is true that ASEAN has become a significant institution in the Asia-Pacific, serving as a catalyst for other dialogue groups and partnerships, it is currently beset by internal factions. On the issue of SCS disputes, two of the main actors - the Philippines and Vietnam have called for stronger US intervention to balance China’s presumed aggression; while Malaysia, known for being suspicious of the West, has opted to oppose US involvement; Singapore and Thailand, allies of the West, refrained from expressing direct stands on the issue; Burma, Cambodia, and Laos seem to side with China. Such divisions also reflect the common critique to ASEAN regionalism – weakness on significant issues of security – which may be considered a main impediment to resolving the disputes.
- [v] Cha, Victor. Ripe for Rivalry: Has Asia's moment of reckoning finally arrived? http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/12/12/ripe_for_rivalry Accessed on January 27, 2013 Meanwhile, as the geopolitical competition increases, Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe expressed his government’s stand on the issue, “open seas are public assets and Japan will do its utmost to protect them by cooperating with ASEAN. China’s economic rise is definitely a plus for Japan but it is important for China to act responsibly as part of international society.”
- [vi] Parties involved in the SCS disputes have resorted to mechanisms as provided in the United Nations Charter. Negotiations and mediations are the most preferred ones. However, the problem arises when one party deviates from what is clearly accepted as proper based on international law, especially on international conventions such as the UNCLOS. Considering the complexity of the situation, parties that feel aggrieved just resort to arbitration and/ or litigation. Article 33 of the United Nations Charter states that “the parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.” Source: Chapter VI: Pacific Settlement of Disputes. United Nations Charter. http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter6.shtml. Accessed on February 10, 2013.Good offices should also be added to this list. To keep this simpler, we may categorize them into four: negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and litigation.[vi] Negotiation basically involves two or more parties engaged in direct dialogues in an effort to reach an agreement; vital components include persuasion and influence. In mediation, the mediator assists the participants to reach a negotiated settlement of their differences. In arbitration, parties argue their case (with or without legal representation) and the arbitrator renders a decision or award. Lastly, litigation process involves taking the case to court; this is the least preferred because the final outcome is a win-loss one. United Nations Development Programme. http://pppue.undp.2margraf.com/en/20_4.htm. Accessed on February 10, 2013
- [vii] Employing legal approach is to study and evaluate dispute settlement mechanisms under UNCLOS, the appropriate forum for the dispute in accordance with international law. Diplomatic approach may keep open all channels of discussions with the parties involved especially with their high-level officials. Lastly, political approach aims to transform both disputed and non-disputed areas into zones of peace and cooperation. Source: Rules-based approach to resolve dispute with China in Rappler. September 2012. http://www.rappler.com/nation/13179-rules-based-to-resolve-dispute-with-...
- [viii] Storey, Ian. Manila Ups the Ante in the South China Sea in China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 3February 1, 2013. http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=40402... Accessed on February 10, 2013.
- [ix] Ramos, Fidel. Philippines- China: Arbitration Best Option? in Manila Bulletin January 26, 2013. http://mb.com.ph/articles/391312/philippines-china-arbitration-best-opti.... Accessed on February 10, 2013.
- [x] Successful examples include Joint Development Authority between Malaysia and Thailand in the Gulf of Thailand to produce and extract gas; joint development of fishery resources between China and Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin
- Cha, Victor. Ripe for Rivalry: Has Asia's moment of reckoning finally arrived? http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/12/12/ripe_for_rivalry Accessed on January 27, 2013
- Chang, Bao. ASEAN, China to become top trade partners in China Daily. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-04/20/content_15094898.htm. Accessed on February 13, 2013.
- Cordero, Jean. Territorial dispute in South China Sea tops news of 2012. December 31, 2012. Link provided below: http://apdforum.com/en_GB/article/rmiap/articles/online/features/2012/12.... Accessed on February 9, 2013.
- Ramos, Fidel. Philippines- China: Arbitration Best Option? in Manila Bulletin January 26, 2013. http://mb.com.ph/articles/391312/philippines-china-arbitration-best-opti.... Accessed on February 10, 2013.
- Storey, Ian. Manila Ups the Ante in the South China Sea in China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 3February 1, 2013.
- http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=40402... Accessed on February 10, 2013.
- Timeline: Disputes in the South China Sea, Key moments in the territorial disputes and intermittent skirmishes. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/world/special/south-china-sea-timel.... Accessed on February 9, 2013.
- Chapter VI: Pacific Settlement of Disputes. United Nations Charter. http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter6.shtml. Accessed on February 10, 2013.Good offices should also be added to this list.
- United Nations Development Programme. http://pppue.undp.2margraf.com/en/20_4.htm. Accessed on February 10, 2013
- Rules-based approach to resolve dispute with China in Rappler. September 2012. http://www.rappler.com/nation/13179-rules-based-to-resolve-dispute-with-...
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