Avoiding tragedy in the South China Sea


Global Europe

As Barack Obama brought the recent US-ASEAN summit in California to a close, the US President explained how the two sides had advanced their ‘shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means.’ His implicit reference to the South China Sea was no less than a declaration that the United States will not stand idly by as China unilaterally changes the maritime order. Such a statement has only strained tensions further.

It’s no surprise there are anxieties about the dispute in South China Sea; the stakes are very high. Though unlikely, the global economic chaos created by a war in East and Southeast Asia would be unimaginable, and would result in decades of human tragedy. Even a brief conflict could bring world trade – 50% of which passes through the region – to a jarring halt. To many in Washington and Beijing, the South China Sea dispute has become a proxy battle for influence over Asia. But ASEAN, arguably the world’s second most successful regional organisation after the European Union, has a pivotal role to play in this contest. It will take careful engagements from all three parties to resolve the disputes peacefully. Ultimately, the South China Sea dispute presents these players with three distinct tests, on the rules and norms, on resource management and an operational test.

America’s credibility in advocating freedom of navigation and the law of the sea is reduced when Washington itself refuses to be party to the convention

The rules and norms test requires that China respect international law when addressing the South China Sea dispute. As a peaceful and responsible permanent member of the Security Council, China – which has judges sitting in the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – must not turn to the threat or use of force as a resolution to the maritime dispute. The world needs assurance that the newly-built islands in the South China Sea are not being militarised and are not to be used for power projection in the region.

The United States, which promotes freedom of navigation and adherence to global norms, must lead by example. The most effective way for the country to do this would be by ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). America’s credibility in advocating that nations abide by the principle of freedom of navigation and the law of the sea is reduced when Washington itself refuses to be party to the convention. The deteriorating situation in the South China Sea provides a much-needed push for the United States to get its act together.

ASEAN members involved in the dispute must also shore up the importance of rules and norms – smaller nations dealing with larger ones must rely on international norms and rules to advocate for themselves. To accomplish this, parties in the South China Sea dispute that have not done so need to streamline their claims under international law. They must clearly state the features, the names, the exact location and the legal basis of their claims. Practices incompatible with UNCLOS, such as Vietnam’s excessive baselines, need to be ended.

The six countries of the Coral Triangle Initiative have demonstrated that collaboration is possible without having settled maritime boundaries

The resource management test requires the individual claimants themselves, the greater ASEAN community and possibly the United States to collaborate on the conservation of marine resources in the South China Sea. The absence of a regional fisheries management organisation in the disputed area has led to there being no information on the depletion of fish stocks or the deterioration of the sea’s health. This could lead to food insecurity, increase the poverty of coastal communities and increase illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

While the idea of joint development of mineral resources is wishful thinking, the six countries of the Coral Triangle Initiative – two of which, Malaysia and the Philippines, are South China Sea claimants – have demonstrated that collaboration to manage the health of the largest coral reef on Earth is possible without having settled maritime boundaries. The security, safety and environmental management of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore do not require a definitive maritime boundary or even the successful settlement of sovereignty disputes.

No one country can handle the myriad of global threats or the burden of international order

The operational test requires the United States, ASEAN and China to devise a mechanism to reduce the risk of collision or conflict at sea. The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting would be an excellent platform to establish a practical mechanism aimed at defusing tensions, preventing escalation, managing maritime emergencies and increasing operational safety. The three parties could establish sub-regional naval collaboration for joint exercises and joint operations other than war to create, strengthen and maintain trust. The sharing of experiences in regional maritime law enforcement could also create the needed trust.

Each of these three tests will need to be passed by all those involved if they are to avoid the South China Sea dispute becoming an historic tragedy. No one country can handle the myriad of global threats or the burden of international order by acting unilaterally; not even the collective power of the five permanent members of the Security Council can do so. International challenges require international cooperation and solutions.

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