A New Way to Resolve South China Sea Disputes?

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A New Way to Resolve South China Sea Disputes?

A retired U.S. admiral suggests an out-of-the-box solution.

A New Way to Resolve South China Sea Disputes?

The USS George Washington underway in the South China Sea in 2012.

Credit: Flickr/U.S. Navy Photo

As disturbing trends in the South China Sea continue into 2015, some interesting proposals have been floated in various circles about how to resolve – or at least manage – the contentious territorial and maritime disputes there. We have explored some of these direct and indirect approaches at The Diplomat, which range from imposing greater costs on Chinese coercion in the South China Sea to leaving the issue to the next generation altogether.

At a recent conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, former director of national intelligence and commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Dennis Blair suggested one such idea. In essence, Blair proposed that an ‘International Conference on the South China Sea’ be convened to work out an international solution to conflicting claims in the South China Sea, and that the results of that conference then be used by these actors as the new reality on the ground.

The logic of such an approach, Blair said, would be to establish clarity on how these disputes are handled, something that is absent today. He argued that similar disputes in East Asia have tended to be handled in one of three ways: treaty agreements of some sort (eg. the 1979 agreement between Malaysia and Thailand); tacit agreements to work toward a diplomatic resolution (eg. the Kurils, Dokdo/Takeshima); and military standoffs (eg. Taiwan, Senkaku/Diaoyu, the two Koreas). In the South China Sea, however, Blair said the actors have yet to all work out exactly which method to use, with the declaration of conduct on the South China Sea virtually ignored and China using non-military, gray-zone actions to advance its controversial nine-dash line claim.

For Blair, convening an ‘International Conference on the South China Sea’ would help establish clarity on how to resolve conflicting claims in a two-step process. First, a conference would be held involving claimants – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and yes, China too, if it agrees – and supported by other seafaring nations such as the United States, Japan and Australia. The objective would be to work out a rough international solution to claims in the South China Sea. While Blair acknowledged that China may not participate, he believed other claimants could use general precedents and standards to come up with a specific solution – down to territorial seas, economic zones and joint development areas – that would be roughly fair to all.

Second, following the conference, Blair said the claimant nations who were at the conference should then act as if the results of that conference were the new ground reality in the South China Sea. The rest of the international community, meanwhile, should recognize the legitimacy of that conference and support actions that are in line with it and opposing those that are not.

While it is not uncommon to hear versions of such an idea floated as potential options publicly and privately, it is certainly not one of the more orthodox approaches usually featured in the headlines. It would also seem at first glance to make some sense, if achieving some clarity as soon as possible is the overriding objective. But the proposal would also likely face several formidable challenges if actually attempted. First, even leaving China aside — given its allergic reaction to ‘internationalizing’ the issue — it is unclear how much support there would be among the remaining South China Sea claimants for such a public way to resolve differing claims. A few may not even wish to attend the conference, as they may prefer more low-profile or quieter ways of handling disputes. Much of this will also depend on form rather than substance. Heavy involvement by outside actors including the United States might appeal to bolder claimants like the Philippines or Vietnam but be less appealing to Malaysia, for example — particularly if it is read as external interference by China and places these states in a rather awkward position between Washington and Beijing. And let’s not even mention the diplomatic minefield of inviting both Taiwan and mainland China to participate in an international dialogue on sovereignty issues.

Second, assuming the conference is convened and most of the claimants do attend, resolving claims between parties is likely to be notoriously difficult in practice. For all the attention paid to China’s nine-dash line and its challenge to other claimants, several Southeast Asian states have unresolved disputes amongst themselves as well. Blair suggested that some of these issues might be more negotiable than other, fiercer disputes because they do not involve lost homelands, large populations, or even significant economic resources (depending on how one estimates potential hydrocarbon resources). Instead, the South China Sea disputes are largely about national pride and politics. To be fair, incremental efforts have been made to at least resolve some of these disputes over the years, including Malaysia’s quiet resolution with Brunei in 2009. But as the recent controversy between Malaysia and the Philippines over issues related to the South China Sea and Sabah during the past few weeks has illustrated, some of these disagreements are tough nuts to crack.

Third and lastly, even if the conference did leave with some resolution of the disputes between claimants, it is unclear how exactly these claimants, along with other outside actors, would implement this new reality on the ground, as Blair proposed, and whether they have both the capabilities and the willingness to do so. This is particularly the case if China is not part of how that reality is shaped; Beijing has so far aggressively demonstrated that it is serious about altering the status quo in its favor – including through coercion if necessary. Would the Philippines or Malaysia, or even ASEAN countries collectively, be expected to challenge Beijing over areas that lie within the nine-dash line following the conference, and, if so, how much would they be willing to risk? I have noted more specifically some of the challenges inherent in even slightly more forward-leaning individual and regional approaches in the maritime realm and the South China Sea, let alone overt challenges to China there (see, for instance, here, here and here).

As for outside actors, taking the example of the United States, how much would Washington be willing to commit to operationalize this new reality given its nuanced policy of not taking a position on the disputes themselves but being concerned about how they are resolved and their broader consequences for the region? Blair, for his part, believes that U.S. policy in the South China Sea thus far has been “tentative and quite weak” and does not adequately recognize key American interests. But that still leaves the more difficult question of how far America is willing to go – including committing assets and risking a downturn in the U.S.-China relationship – to see a proper resolution to conflicting claims in the South China Sea.