Territorial disputes are at the heart of many current international conflicts: North and South Sudan, Tibet, Jammu and Kashmir, Crimea, North and South Korea, to name a few.  Boundaries play a central role in creating and maintaining a nation-state’s identity – it is no surprise that they are often incredibly contentious. The South China Sea dispute is a maritime territorial conflict between China and Southeast Asian countries that has increased in importance in the past decades. It remains a stalemate and became a real security issue after the American Pivot to Asia in 2011, when military escalation started. However, is this the best approach to solving the problem in Southeast Asia? In reality, stakeholders in the South China Sea dispute can only tackle their disagreements through bilateral negotiations.

How did we get here?

The current Southeast Asian boundaries are inherited from the colonial period. In the 1970s, newly independent nation-states, along with China, began claiming the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal and Paracel Islands. Most of them cited  the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to defend their claims, but China did not; its position is based on alleged ancient sovereignty of the territory. This has been an issue for the past forty years, but did not become a major security concern until the 21st century, when the importance of maritime trade in the area increased  and local powers began militarizing the region. This situation intensified after Obama’s 2011 announcement of the Pivot to Asia Initiative. In the past decade, the risk of armed conflict has increased exponentially. Over the past few years, warships from China, the United States, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, and Britain, among others, have been challenging each other in the South China sea.

The American “stumble” to Asia

To fully understand what’s going on in the region, we need to examine the American Pivot To Asia. The Obama 2011 initiative was meant to be a strategic “re-balancing” of U.S. interests from Europe and the Middle East towards Asia. American foreign policy from the previous decade resulted in costly interventions such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration wanted to distance itself from those conflicts, and there was no better way than by refocusing attention, both strategic and military, to a region with many emerging economies: Southeast Asia.

The question remains whether this strategy has been successful or not. In an enlightening article from The Diplomat, John Ford argues that it hasn’t, and his reasoning is straightforward: the assumptions it was based on are wrong. He makes the case that the U.S. had already been following a successful strategy in Asia, one that resulted in free trade treaties and the expansion of diplomatic relations. The real shift of Obama’s administration was the increase of militarization in the region. The Chinese saw the move as an aggression, and now escalation seems inevitable. If we examine the situation, there was no clear reason for militarization: the economic importance of the region calls for economic and not security solutions – for example, through free trade agreements. The U.S. has rejected participation in initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank solely because China is involved, hurting its credibility.

Southeast Asian countries are aware of the shortcomings of the U.S.’ strategy. Take, for example, the case of the Philippines. The country has sought to distance itself from the U.S. on multiple occasions. In 2015, President Duterte affirmed: “We have reached a point where we have independent foreign relations, and a problem of America is no longer a problem of the Philippines”. In 2016, he announced the cessation of maritime cooperation with the U.S., arguing that China was a stronger partner. The Philippines didn’t press for China’s recognition of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration Ruling, even when it ruled in the Philippines’ favor in almost every point. Following that line, the country seems to be opening up to the Asian giant economically and politically, and the U.S. is seen as unprepared for a war with China. Ideologically, they are growing more distant every day – especially after Obama’s criticism of Duterte’s human rights abuses. This does not necessarily mean that all Southeast Asian countries are closer to China than they were before, but they are certainly suspicious of external intervention and often prefer to deal with the Asian giant. Thus, the increase in American interest so far has not yielded positive results and is usually not welcome by regional actors.

What about ASEAN?

The South China Sea dispute is not, however, only a conflict facing China and Southeast Asia. The smaller nations have their own competing claims against each other as well. However, all of them – save Taiwan – have something in common: They are part of ASEAN, a regional body established in 1967 with the Bangkok Declaration. One of its main objectives is to promote peace and stability in the region, and there is no doubt that the South China Sea dispute is one of the major obstacles to that goal. A previous challenge that ASEAN has successfully dealt with has been insurgency from Communist Parties, now no longer a threat. On the contrary, it has failed to reach comprehensive and binding agreements regarding piracy on Southeast Asian waters or territorial disputes among member countries. Before ASEAN can resolve any disputes with China, member countries have to stop blocking the talks about the dispute and figure out a joint strategy. The agreement they reached in August 2018 is a step in the good direction, but if they can’t agree on common demands to insist on, it will never be enforced.

Fig. 1: Maritime disputes in Southeast Asia

Source: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative


What is China’s stance?

The People’s Republic of China has been part of many maritime disputes over time. Regarding the South China Sea, the country outlined its famous 9-dash-line in 1947. The area is of interest to China due to the oil and natural gas it could extract if it were within its Exclusive Economic Zone. Because they are Asia’s economic giant, the country can afford to be assertive and expand militarily in the area, refusing any resolution of the conflict that entails losing part of the claimed land; an example of this is the PRC’s lack of recognition of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration Ruling on the South China Sea. Beijing considers the South China Sea an area of traditional Chinese influence and advocates for historical sovereignty, and sees its control as a way to assert greater power over the region.

Fig. 2: China’s nine-dash line

Source: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative


Whether China’s claims are well-founded or not is not important: the problem is that its framing of the issue doesn’t allow for non-regional actors to intervene in the conflict. They follow two arguments to back up their position: 1. Both China and Southeast Asia want stability and peace in the region; 2. Foreign interference will exacerbate problems and harm the resolution of the dispute. As Ji Lie, an analyst of the Chinese Naval Institute in Beijing, argued, “Competition is the American way of seeing it (…), China is simply protecting its rights and its interests in the Pacific.”

The main problem

In 2018, the situation has worsened as China and the U.S. have increased militarization and thus the risk of armed conflict. China has physically increased the size of the islands it claims, constructed military installations and even created new ones. The U.S. response has been consistent with international law, as it sends Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to the area, sailing without the authorization of the claimants of the waters. It has also increased military operations and made shows of force. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom or Japan, have also contributed with expansion of their warcraft. By trying to deter Chinese aggression, the military buildup threatens the region’s stability. What can stakeholders do? If military expansion is not the solution, there must be another one. And here lies the main issue: China will never  settle for a deal that is seen as going against its national interest. That is, if we want a cooperative regime to be imposed in the South China Sea, China has to believe that it’s its best choice.

Next steps

This articles aims at explaining which steps should be followed next by countries involved in the South China Sea dispute. First, ASEAN member states and Taiwan should clarify their internal disputes before trying to close any deal with China. In order to achieve this goal, ASEAN will need greater security cooperation. If they want a functional security body, uncomfortable decisions will need to be made – and not by consensus. Second, the body needs to expand the channel of dialogue between them and China. It needs to convince the Asian giant that compromise is closer to its interests than a permanent impasse in the area. They need to use China’s own argument: if it wants stability and prosperity in the region – as well as the extraction of resources; demilitarization is necessary, as well as a binding agreement regarding boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones. For this argument to be believable, all non-regional military presence needs to be withdrawn from  the area, as China is never going to remove its own unilaterally. Since the PRC needs the energy resources located in the South China Sea, an exhaustive exercise of diplomacy by Southeast Asian nations could broker a resource-sharing agreement – whether it would be based on UNCLOS or not is unclear. Both parties need to finalize the code of conduct they have tried to implement for many years and accept it as binding.

The South China Sea is one of the most important geopolitical locations: 45% of world trade flows through its waters. It is also a prime spot for oil and natural gas extraction, which sparks the interests of the countries both with and without competing claims over the sea. The conflict in the South China Sea has been a security concern since the beginning of the 21st century, and it remains a stalemate. The nation-states with competing claims over the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal and the Paracel Islands haven’t been able to find common ground to develop a solution. Even the 2016 PCA ruling on the Philippines v. China case dismissing most of China’s arguments didn’t motivate a change in the region. In 2018, the situation has worsened as China and the US have increased militarization and thus the risk of armed conflict. Because of the negative role played by external actors, non-regional interference is not a solution for the issue. Regional agreements are the only possible exit from the impasse, and there is a need to follow a very specific path to assure the demilitarization of the area. The key is convincing China that it’s in their best interest to reach a solution, even if that means sacrificing some of their territorial claims.


Featured Image Source: World Defense News

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