Seeking a Solution to the South China Sea Disputes

Pressuring China won’t solve anything. Time for an alternative path.

Seeking a Solution to the South China Sea Disputes
Credit: U.S Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jay C. Pugh/Released

It was considered an historical victory when the Permanent Court of Arbitration Tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in its case challenging China’s South China Sea claims. Since then, contrary to many experts’ prediction that China would become a second Russia — aggressively exerting its territorial claims against international law and increasingly militarizing the South China Sea area despite criticism from the international community — Chinese behavior has been “fairly good… managed and careful,” as Ankit Panda put it. As Panda noted, “Beijing has not declared an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, moved to begin reclamation at Scarborough Shoal, sanctioned the Philippines, or announced an intent to withdraw from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” There were even reports that China was being more accommodating of Philippine fishermen entering Scarborough Shoal right after the Shangri-La summit and before the Tribunal’s final decision.

However, such positive signs cannot be exaggerated. Overall, the Chinese position and claim have not changed an inch. While many have complimented the Philippines’ victory, claiming that this is an historic legal case capable of putting big and small states on equal footing in front of international law, the facts on the ground remain. According to a July 15 report, China continues to block Filipino fishermen from approaching Scarborough Shoal, which rightfully lies within their EEZ. China has persistently refused to recognize or commit to the tribunal’s judgment — just as every other member in the Security Council has previously behaved when facing international law, as Harvard University Professor Graham Alison pointed out. Despite original positive expectations, after one week the South China Sea dispute remains in a stalemate. The international community, especially the U.S.-backed bloc including Japan, Australia, the EU, Vietnam, and the Philippines, have been pushing China to come to a final commitment, expecting an end to this daunting conflict. However, pressing for a final outcome is neither a good method nor a realistic way of dealing with this conflict. There are three main arguments nullifying the efforts to put pressure on China:

First of all, while most analysts are turning to ASEAN as the last hope for negotiating a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea issue, in reality ASEAN does not have the capacity to meet such high expectations. ASEAN is a much more fragile intergovernmental organization than the EU. Now that even the EU has gone through the Brexit nightmare because of inseparable individual national interests, ASEAN has little hope of leading Southeast Asian countries toward a common position against China.

The ASEAN integration process has met with many difficulties, considering the region’s diverse cultures and unconnected history. Furthermore, there are no catalyzing events – such as the two world wars or the common threat of the Soviet Union – which would be capable of melting different national interests into a common stance, as happened in the EU.

Besides their social and cultural diversity, ASEAN countries are also natural competitors in economic development due to their similarities in key economic sectors (ie IT or low-skilled labor industries like textiles), food (similar cuisines due to similar vegetation), tourism (similar landscapes), or technological development. There is no outstanding leader in ASEAN that is capable of leading, gaining respect and submission from other member states. While Singapore is an exemplary success, the country is too small to lead other big states such as the Philippines or Malaysia. The EU at least has the big three – the U.K., France, and Germany, which enjoy an outsized advantage in terms of territory, population, and military, political, and economic power – which outweigh other member states, giving them the leadership position in the union in times of high politics.

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As in the EU, political integration in ASEAN is the most difficult process, if not an impossible one. Just as political issues resulted in Brexit, the South China Sea dispute is dismantling rather than uniting ASEAN. The South China Sea dispute is inherently a sensitive issue that ASEAN states cannot agree on due to their different interests. It is exactly this issue that helped China divide ASEAN unity from inside. This could be an additional explanation for China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea — China does not want a strong and united regional organization next door and was trying its best to prevent ASEAN integration. Therefore, it is counterproductive to force ASEAN to come up with a Code of Conduct and conduct bilateral talks with China. Continued expectations for ASEAN will only lead to disappointment; it would be like forcing a businessman to do expert-level political analysis.

Second, international law is not an effective tool to alter superpowers’ behaviors. This is not the first failure of international law. There is a reason the system has been long regarded as laws for the smaller states alone; superpowers like China, the United States, Russia, or the U.K. would never bring themselves to follow the laws if the laws work against their national interests. After observing the negligible impacts of the tribunal’s decision on China, it is obvious that future legal cases from Vietnam or any other claimants would not achieve any more tangible result.

Finally, China and the claimants are caught in a mutually reinforcing cycle. The bigger state will keep acting as it wishes, and the smaller states can only suffer what they have to. China, as a regional hegemon, will continue to behave aggressively and the other claimants, though small, would never give up their territorial integrity. This is a chaotic asymmetric relationship because the big state (China) does not respect the autonomy of the smaller ones, and the smaller states (the other claimants) appear as aggressors against the leadership of the bigger (for more on this concept, see Brantly Womack’s Asymmetry and International Relationships). The disproportionate capacities between the two make China so confident that it keeps pursuing its hegemony in the South China Sea, while the other claimants desperately try to make up for this asymmetry by allying with external powers, or increasing their military budgets, which in fact has a limited impact and diverts the countries from their potentials for economic development.

In fact, China has already proved its patience and willingness to negotiate by carefully managing its reaction after the tribunal’s ruling on July 12. Taking into consideration that China is a big state and cannot afford to lose face, it is the best if other claimants open an exit by allowing China to negotiate while sustaining its arrogant position. The Philippines has indeed made a positive move on this, with President Rodrigo Duterte inviting Chinese investors to the Philippines. This is how an asymmetric conflict should be dealt with: by the smaller state recognizing its inferior position vis-a-vis the bigger state and showing willingness to talk right after the great victory. This is the best way to earn respected negotiations, beneficial for both sides. As one Filipino analyst has pointed out, Duterte can now “save China’s face.”

What is then the solution for this daunting South China Sea dispute?

It is important first of all to recognize the fact that the South China Sea conflict is very much asymmetric, and therefore cannot be dealt with in a symmetric way. China is indisputably a superpower in the region and the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimants are just smaller states. Consequently, it is impossible to expect a fair solution that treats every participant equally. Everything should be proportionate. The ASEAN countries have to learn how to work with the regional hegemon, China, in a proportionately mutual beneficial way. Quoting international law or forcing China to agree with ASEAN’s proposal for a Code of Conduct is indeed unfair to this superpower. The realist school of thought would be more honest and support China’s higher position in every negotiation.

The only thing that ASEAN nations can do, should they really want to stand together against China, is to first focus on developing the individual countries’ economies and together gradually try to reduce their dependence on Chinese products, markets, and aid. ASEAN should reduce competition among its members, increase internal aid programs, and exchange technology and experiences. Only when each and every ASEAN nation is strong enough and really enjoys cooperation within the organization, can a common approach finally be considered. But in the age of a prosperous ASEAN, there would no longer be a need to raise this sensitive issue against China. Seeing ASEAN growing stronger economically will entice China to behave moderately — to cooperate rather than take the offensive in the South China Sea. This is the only peaceful solution to the conflict.

One note on the third party, the United States. As recent events have shown, the United States has hardly made any constructive contribution to solving the South China Sea Conflict. All this superpower has done so far is to pressure China to commit to UNCLOS (which the United States is not even a party to), sponsor militarization in the region, and add aggression where necessary. It seems like the United States is planning for another proxy war against China in the South China Sea, which ASEAN countries and China should be well aware of. Both sides should avoid falling into violent conflict at all cost. If ASEAN states are willing to act as America’s “Tank Man”, trying to intensify the conflict with China, war will come as a result, destroying the lives of innocent citizens.