James Holmes

A Cold War Solution for the South China Sea?

Could the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) Agreement be a model to reduce tensions?

My alma mater, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, will probably revoke my degree, but…I doubt diplomatic negotiations toward a South China Sea code of conduct will pay off. ASEAN members have long sought to broker such a compact, only to be foiled by Chinese temporizing. Proponents seem to believe a code of conduct would eliminate incidents such as the recent standoff at Scarborough Shoal, when Chinese and Philippine vessels faced off for weeks over sovereignty over the atoll and adjoining waters.

This confuses tactical measures taken to ease tensions on the high seas with the resolution of political disputes that verge on insoluble. It bespeaks wishful thinking.

Officials and pundits seem to pattern their advocacy of such an accord on the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) Agreement. And to be sure, INCSEA was a code of conduct regulating the actions of U.S. and Soviet assets in international waters and skies. It prescribed certain actions American and Soviet seamen and airmen should take, or avoid taking, when they found themselves in close proximity in the global commons. Close encounters were commonplace in light of the cat-and-mouse games the two navies played during the late Cold War. Refraining from actions that could be construed as attackson the other fleet’s ships and warplanes, or that otherwise placed them in jeopardy, was central to the INCSEA philosophy.

INCSEA helped reduce the chances of accidental crises or armed conflicts that might ensue should ships or aircraft collide, weapons be flourished, or tempers flare. That was no small thing. But the agreement’s framers entertained few illusions about its capacity to bring about political concord. Again, it was tactical in nature. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union relinquished its prerogatives in the maritime domain because of INCSEA. Does anyone really believe that Beijing, which assigns its territorial claims in the South China Sea inordinate value, will sign away those claims to quell tensions it has deliberately stoked? Color me skeptical.