Incentivizing Multilateralism in the South China Sea

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Considering the multiple overlapping claims in the South China Sea, bilateral talks alone cannot yield a lasting solution. However, engaging in more inclusive dialogue will prove difficult for as long China – whose claims in these waters bring it into conflict with all the other claimants – remains averse to multilateral talks.

Part of the aversion likely stems from Beijing’s growing confidence in the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s strength relative to its maritime neighbors. With this perceived advantage, rather than multilateral talks – which could give China worse odds of getting all of what it claims in the region – Beijing seems confident that maintaining a preference for bilateral talks, while engaging in incremental island reclamation, more frequent patrols, as well as something occasionally more dramatic, will prove the more effective strategy, eventually forcing the other claimants to reconsider what they are willing to stake to realize their interests in the SCS.

However, with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and even non-claimant states like Indonesia and Singapore fast upgrading their navies, while building closer ties with each other – as well as with the United States, Australia and India further away, China is likely to find its military advantage in these waters less clear cut. And rather than spooking the other claimants into conforming to its wishes, Beijing’s assertiveness in the SCS will more frequently provoke responses in kind.

For the countries involved in these disputes, for those further away, and perhaps most importantly, for the 500 million people who live within 100 miles of the SCS coastline, the prevailing status quo, which leaves plenty of room for potentially devastating miscalculation, is far from ideal. And in a tense environment, continued obstinacy towards multilateral talks will likely come at a high cost.

The good news however is that there are a few ways to make multilateral talks more appealing. Perhaps the most effective approach would be to raise the cost of using force by establishing a multinational naval coalition that would focus on ensuring freedom of navigation in the SCS. In doing so, this coalition will likely make China and the other claimants less confident of their military advantage in the region, rendering unilateral provocative actions far less appealing. Such a maritime coalition would probably be most effective if it included the U.S. Navy, and would be most legitimate if membership were extended to all those involved in the SCS disputes.

Of course, putting together a strong coalition that can deter any claimant from using force in the SCS will prove tricky, especially considering China’s interest in such a maritime force is far from clear. Fortunately, there are a few easier ways to incentivize multilateral talks.

One straightforward way would be to remind the PRC that it has engaged in multilateral talks in the not too distant past. In 2005, China, the Philippines and Vietnam signed a proposal to map seismic zones in the SCS. That the Chinese leadership has shown faith in multilateralism to explore the SCS provides much-needed ground to encourage further talks. And though more talks aimed at joint exploration alone might do little to resolve the thorny questions of sovereignty, they will provide a welcome opportunity for collective engagement and help build trust among the claimants.

It would also be useful to highlight China’s own aspirations for ocean-related industrial economic activities to account for 13 percent of its GDP by 2020. Being more open to multilateral negotiations could result in a more permissive maritime environment, making it easier for China to realize some of its economic goals in these waters.

Finally, if claimants like Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines who are more inclined to multilateral talks can come together to discuss a solution, it could hasten the process of settlement. More than bringing about resolution by itself, coming together would convey a sense of urgency and resolve, which could make Beijing more amenable to inclusive dialogue – especially considering that by remaining aloof, China would risk taking a significant portion of the blame for the failure of multilateralism in the SCS.

However, far more than any of these measures, the success of multilateralism will depend on whether the six countries involved in these disputes recognize that control over the South China Sea at the cost of strategic hostility with each other, as well as with important economic partners further away, will prove a pyrrhic victory. Clearly, betting on such reasoning prevailing anytime soon would require a level of optimism that’s perhaps best kept out of statecraft. However, as tensions escalate, and the possibility of a wider conflict grows, it is perhaps a recognition of the costs of any conflict which, more than any other factor, could persuade the claimants to give multilateralism a chance. The worrying question then is this: Just how much worse will things have to get before multilateralism starts to look appealing in these waters?

Kailash K Prasad is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He tweets at @ridersonthestrm

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