Law Not War in the South China Sea
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Law Not War in the South China Sea


The recent APEC and ASEAN summits in Honolulu and Bali, respectively, saw renewed efforts to solve the South China Sea issue using a regional diplomacy-based approach. Tensions around the conflicting claims over various islands and maritime space have grown since 2009, when China, Vietnam and Malaysia formally submitted their claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China’s apparent willingness last year to use new naval and air assets to demonstrate support for its claims – and the reaction this sparked from claimants Vietnam and the Philippines – has pushed regional tensions to new heights. Yet the limited diplomatic gains of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation and Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits in tackling this issue underscore the shortcomings of the strategies employed by regional states.

Broadly speaking, there have been four main strategies:

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The first has been to attempt to negotiate at the bilateral level. China has repeatedly indicated its preference for this method, but disparities in size and economic influence mean that this approach is widely seen as heavily weighted in Beijing’s favor by the other claimants. Furthermore, there are suspicions that China’s intention is merely to negotiate a freeze on resource development in contested oil fields, rather than to compromise on sovereignty issues. On the other hand, the bilateral channel has been used to good effect to reduce bilateral tensions, as seen by Vietnam’s recent six-point agreement with China, which established a few new mechanisms for consulting on border issues.

The second strategy has been to try take the issue to a variety of regional fora and solve it at a multilateral level, where states feel China’s advantages of scale are more muted. ASEAN has been the main organization chosen, and for many in the region, this is one of its most formidable tests of whether it can handle regional security issues. But the diversity of interests, the strength of the ASEAN way, and the fact that only four ASEAN states out of ten are involved in the South China Sea issue has meant that an ASEAN solution remains – as yet – out of reach. China’s ability to detach Burma, Laos, and at times, Indonesia from Vietnamese and Philippine positions reveals the weakness of such an approach.

A third strategy has been to develop closer diplomatic and military relations with the United States. With 36 attack submarines and six carrier groups in the Pacific, the United States remains the predominant military force in the region, and states like Vietnam and the Philippines have sought strategic reassurance through new or renewed military agreements with Washington. Vietnam’s nuclear and military medical agreements are largely seen in this light, as is Clinton’s visit to Manila following the APEC summit, where she reaffirmed the U.S. defense commitment to the Philippines in the Manila Declaration and announced the delivery of another coast guard cutter to the Philippine navy.

Moving away from its previous position of non-involvement over the issue, the United States has increased engagement with both states, for a number of reasons. First, the U.S. is concerned with the larger implications on international maritime law of China’s claims, particularly the “U-shaped line.” Second, the prospect of potential Chinese control over these vital sea lanes of communication (SLOC) for North East Asian allies like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea makes U.S. policy makers uneasy. China’s willingness to block resources as part of political pressure has already been demonstrated during the Senkaku fishing boat incident in September 2010. For Manila and Hanoi, these new ties with the United States are simultaneously a hedge against Chinese military assertiveness as well as a form of pressure on Beijing to compromise at the diplomatic fora.

But as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s speech to ASEAN leaders at Bali indicates, China has recently adopted a softer tone, indicating that it’s willing to seek a peaceful resolution to the disputes, promising massive investment to the region. Still, Wen also warned against involving foreign powers in the disputes. While this is widely read to mean the United States, it’s also meant to include other powers.

For ASEAN powers have also used a fourth strategy – internationalizing the issue by involving non-regional states like India and European powers in the exploitation of carbon energy resources in disputed waters. India’s recent agreement with Vietnam to carry out joint development of a gas field in Chinese-Vietnamese disputed waters falls into this category, and India’s state owned ONGC joins a number of other foreign companies already involved in Vietnam including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP and Zarubezhneft.

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