In the South China Sea as in elsewhere, a win-win economic approach works better than a zero-sum military competition.
The recent pattern of competition—in which Beijing seizes opportunities to advance its claims, and to project control against perceived provocations—suggests that traditional dispute management is no longer working. Paradoxically, the only feasible way to manage the convoluted state of territorial problems seems to be a return to Beijing’s long-term stance of “shelving disputes and joint development of resources.” This economic approach calls for a separation of territorial disputes from regional security concerns, an area where great power rivalry is concerned. China’s proposal recognizes the importance of understanding the conflict’s historical context.
Sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) entail more than simply who owns what particular geologic and geographic features. They involve food and energy security, the maritime environment, and the security of commercial sea-lanes. These quarrels are also linked to rising nationalism in every claimant nation. While no one country enjoys a perfect claim in the SCS, no single claimant should be blamed for all the region’s problems. As pointed out by Kimie Hara, author of the Cold War Frontiers in the Asia-Pacific, the San Francisco Peace Treaty (SFPT) remains the origin of most of East Asia’s territorial disorder. Unlike the Europeans in their own peace treaty with Germany, Asians had little say regarding the Treaty with Japan. The ensuing series of asymmetrical post-war bilateral security arrangements cemented an anti-communist fault line. This led to East-West confrontation comprised of two bitter wars in Korea and Vietnam, respectively. The scope of Chinese maritime territory and its border emerged another casualty of that Western-imposed framework.
The Republic of China (ROC, now in Taiwan) was the first mover to stake claims in the SCS. It sent four warships—all provided by the United States—to recover the SCS islands in 1946, five years before the SFPT was signed. The ROC subsequently created an 11-dash U-shaped line map to solidify its claims. This occurred at a time when most of the SCS neighbors remained under various colonial yokes (although the Philippines had just achieved independence months before). While the Chinese and Taiwanese governments now argue that none of the disputant states made any counter-arguments then, Southeast Asian states typically counter with reminders of colonial rule. This deprived them of political power to officially challenge the Chinese position of the time.
At the San Francisco conference of 1951, neither of the Chinese governments across the Taiwan Strait was invited, despite the Chinese Nationalists (and the Communists) having fought Japan the longest, and having suffered the greatest from imperial Japan’s invasion. The United States thus established the post-WWII East Asian order in China’s absence. In 1952 the ROC, still representing China at the United Nations, obtained a bilateral treaty with Japan establishing that Tokyo “renounce all right, title, and claim to Taiwan and Penghu as well as the Spratley [sic] Islands and the Paracel Islands.” Taipei proffers this treaty as evidence that the Spratlys and Paracels were and are ROC territory. Yet Taipei’s lack of physical control of all the geologic features (i.e., some shoals or jutting rocks hardly considered islands)—except the largest Itu Aba (a.k.a. Taiping) Island where Taiwan established a military and then later a coast guard presence—gradually undermined its claim. In 1971 the UN transferred recognition from Taipei to Bejing. Thereafter, the Philippines, Vietnam (both North and South), and Malaysia fortified posts on their islets and built airstrips, in part on reclaimed land. Upon independence in 1984, Brunei also staged claims on the Spratlys, but it has had no occupation of any geography. Thus exist six disputants.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) emerged the latecomer in the Spratlys’ land-grab, although it proved the second nation to stake legal claims as a succeeding Chinese government. As early as in 1951, Premier Zhou Enlai declared that Paracels and Spratlys both belonged to the PRC. Even so, for 37 years Beijing did not command a foothold in the Spratlys until it defeated Vietnam in a 1988 maritime skirmish. The PRC then took six reefs from Hanoi. Almost a decade later, in 1995, Beijing secured an unoccupied reef near the Philippines. This prompted Manila, in 1999, to purposely ground an American WWII warship on one of the nearby reefs to demonstrate sovereignty. Meanwhile, based on testimony by David Shear, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian & Pacific Security Affairs, Vietnam quietly extended its reach to as many as 48 outposts in the Spratlys, more than doubling all the other claimants’ posts combined.
In a recent article published in The Diplomat, this writer has observed a new pattern of competition by the SCS claimants, one commencing in 2011 when the Pivot to Asia (later changed to “Rebalance”) was proclaimed by the US. In pursuit of self-interest, smaller neighbors initiated challenges to each other (as with the Philippine navy killing Taiwanese fishermen), and also wrestling with China over islets. This provoked retaliations, all in a vicious cycle. These contests range from military involvement at the Scarborough Shoal, to domestic unilateral enactment of statutes concerning ownership of the disputed territories. Nations even mounted international legal challenges, such as Manila’s ITLOS lawsuit against China. Beijing responded to each of the cases with tougher in-kind measures. The PRC soon controlled outright the Scarborough Shoal, set up Sansha City on the Paracels, and through its artificial reef construction, reclaimed land larger in acreage than all the other Spratlys claimants’ territories combined.
China’s massive land reclamation at its controlled seven reefs—and the potential to militarize them—sent shockwaves to the international community. Soon thereafter, America’s awkward passage of the USS Lassen within twelve miles of the Subi Reef—alternatively justified as innocent passage under UNCLOS but also a legitimate operation under Freedom of Navigation (FON)—resulted in China’s deployment of fighter jets to the Paracels’ Woody Island for the first time. Continuous US Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOP) could provide a context for China to further militarize its political claims, making them more difficult to challenge legally and operationally. That is, the US’s FONOP may have planted a seed in Beijing, provoking a 12-mile territorial sea claim, initially left ambiguous by the PRC. The real challenge in the SCS thus lies ahead.
Institution Building to End the Vicious Cycle
To devise an effective, multilateral strategy to alter all claimants’ behaviors, one must take into consideration the nine-dash line (an evolution of Taiwan’s original 11-dashed map) as well as stipulations of UNCLOS. Any unilateral or mini-lateral attempts to exclude the former would invite backlash from Beijing, and possibly Taipei as well, thus perpetuating the existing conflicts.
The vicious cycle need not persist. Recognizing the need for bold action, this writer proposes creation of four interconnected IGOs to manage the Spratly Islands: 1) a Development Bank; 2) a Corporation, 3) a Sovereignty Board; and 4) a Security Board. The Bank would serve as the financial entity. It would make loans to the Corporation for specific projects and raises revenues after selling marine biologicals as well as energy products. Its members could include the (six) claimants as well as non-claimants.
The Corporation would be the industrial arm, thus allowing all claimants on board. Charged with organization of joint development for fisheries and energy resources, it would also recover sunken ships and other cultural and historical relics of the region. Its responsibilities would further include preparing all bid documents and awarding contracts, as well as assuring compliance with requirements set by the Sovereignty Board. Some of the proceeds from the Corporation could be used to subsidize costs of the Sovereignty and Security Boards.
Like the Corporation, the political Sovereignty Board would comprise claimants only. The difference is that the Board would project Spratlys sovereignty in the name of its members. The day the Board comes into existence would be the moment when sovereignty disputes freeze and are transferred to the Board. The six-member Board would negotiate deals among claimants to determine zoning for development and/or recovery projects, and to make binding rules on shared resources and environmental protections. The Corporation and the Sovereignty Board would both provide that decisions be made by consensus. Thus, smaller neighbors would not fear being trampled by larger claimants. This would be conducive to Taiwan’s participation because the platform would allow Taiwan to avoid the trap of unification-independence political dichotomy. Beijing would be unlikely to oppose Taiwan’s membership because this would be conducted in an economic framework.
Finally, the Security Board would serve as the military arm to provide indirect security. Its members would include regional players such as Japan, China, India, Korea, Australia and ASEAN, as well as the United States, Russia, and the EU. Only the United States and China could be veto players. This design addresses mutual fears—China’s being out-voted by American allies, and America being forced out of the region. The Board would provide a platform for Sino-US cooperation that could effectively prevent conflict, as well as preserve freedom of navigation and over-flight. Washington’s support of the approach would help create a substantial partnership with China and reduce regional players’ pressure of choosing sides. This scheme could lead to the U.S. reducing its frequency of surveillance on China (a source for Chinese resentment), and China providing America convenient access to its ports for refueling and other purposes. Europe is in a unique position to bring the two nations together, in its multiple roles as American allies and Chinese economic partners.
These IGOs could launch multi-lateral institution building in the SCS region to fill the current institutional deficit. By accumulating mutual trust, these institutions could expand to other parts of disputed territories in East Asia. Most importantly, they could address the vicious cycle experienced in the SCS competition—provocation upon perceived provocation—and help forge a new collaborative spirit. If implemented well, these institutions could help transition the South China Sea into an emerging sea of peace and prosperity.
Nancy Wei was recently a featured speaker at the Friends of Europe conference, 'The Asia Paradox - Rising wealth, lingering tensions'. Read the report from the conference here.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Naval Surface Warriors