Can the South China Sea Dispute Be Resolved?

Can the South China Sea Dispute Be Resolved?
Khmer Times, 27 June 2014

PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) – There are various attempts, both bilaterally and multilaterally, to solve the disputes in the South China Sea. But the nature of the disputes is too complicated. It has become the strategic playground for China and the US to challenge and test each other. Miscommunication, misunderstanding, and miscalculation between the parties concerned can lead to regional armed conflicts. The disputes cannot be solved but can be managed.

There are five claimant states in the disputed South China Sea: Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The ongoing tensions are mainly driven by Chinese assertiveness in claiming its sovereignty, the US’s rebalancing towards Asia with the aim to check the rising power of China, incidents at sea, and prevailing mistrust between claimant states. 

To counterbalance China, both the Philippines and Vietnam have proactively approached United States and Japan. It creates a strategic opportunity for the US to intervene and claim its regional leadership role. For Vietnam, it is trying to diversify its strategic partnerships by deepening bilateral relations with India and Russia. In the eyes of Vietnam, Russia is the most important strategic partner and balancer. Russia poses neither real nor intentional threat to the Asia-Pacific.

Although strategic convergence between China and Russia has been on the rise since the Ukraine crisis, a Sino-Russian security alliance will never take place. These two powers are always skeptical of each other. But the possibility of having a united frontline between the two against the United States and its allies is high. The multi-billion dollars gas deal and naval exercise between China and Russia last month significantly reshaped global and regional security order.

Such increasing strategic power competition between major powers puts regional security at greater risk. It even challenges the centrality role of ASEAN in its efforts to construct an ASEAN-centric security architecture. Small and weak states like Cambodia and Laos are encountering a strategic dilemma although they are trying to exercise balancing and hedging foreign policy towards major powers, they may, however, be forced to choose sides indefinitely. 

The South China Sea dispute is the dividing factor between the claimant and non-claimant states as well as between the major powers. It generates a new wave of regional strategic deficit and distrust. For the non-claimants, Indonesia and Singapore are the two most vocal while Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar are taking strategic pacifism with regard to the disputes. 

Domestic politics determine foreign policy. National interests are above regional interests. Economic development and prosperity are the foundation of political legitimacy. Foreign policy is regarded as tool to serve national economic development. Therefore, they are interested and determined to build closer relations with China, a locomotive of regional economy. 

The failure of the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in July 2012 in issuing a joint statement clearly reflected on such differences of national interest calculation among the ASEAN member states. It was also a wake-up call for ASEAN to effectively and quickly reform their institutions to fully serve the economic and security interests of its members. By staying united amid regional and global turbulences, ASEAN can realize its potential. 

The nature of sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea cannot be solved without having mutual strategic trust and common interests. It is a long-term issue; therefore it needs to have a long-term solution and vision. It requires both bilateral and multilateral approaches. Bilateral negotiation is necessary to build trust and confidence. International laws and norms ideally are the guiding principles of international relations and dispute settlements. Claimant states should strictly adhere to  1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties over the South China Sea (DOC) adopted in Phnom Penh in 2002 is the most important regional instrument in promoting cooperation, as well as preventing disputes and tensions from escalating. In 2011, the guideline to implement the declaration was adopted in Indonesia. However, some claimant states violated the declaration. 

Such poor implementation of the DOC and the increasing tensions in the South China Sea prompt ASEAN and China to work closer together to strengthen regional norms by developing a code of conduct to inter alia deepen mutual strategic trust and confidence through dialogues, strengthen the rules of law and preventive diplomacy, and manage incidents and crisis. 

The formal negotiation process between ASEAN and China on the Code of Conduct (COC) has been conducted since 2012. Although the process is painstakingly slow, it demonstrates certain level of political will and commitment of ASEAN and China in working together to maintain peace and stability in the disputed water. The negotiation process is as important as the outcome. It must produce a meaningful and substantial document.

The code will not be concluded any time soon. Myanmar, the current ASEAN chair, is not so much interested in pushing forward the code for being afraid of harming its good relations with China. The Myanmar chair shows more interest in economic development and poverty reduction, social development, non-traditional security issues, and intra-regional connectivity projects. 

The pressures will fall upon Malaysia, one of the claimants, which will chair ASEAN next year. 2015 is a special year for ASEAN since the three community blueprints are expected to be completed by then. COC will be on top of the agenda as well. Without addressing the disputes in the South China Sea peacefully and amicably, the building of an ASEAN community will be just a dream. 

ASEAN and China have no other choice but to conclude the COC as soon as possible. It serves the interests of all parties concerned. It will definitely contribute to regional peace and stability. ASEAN should not view China as a threat; China should not view a united ASEAN as a threat. 

ASEAN member states should adjust their foreign policy and stay absolutely neutral amid ‘powers’ rivalry otherwise it cannot build a neutral and relevant ASEAN institution. It starts with the calculation of national interests. Only when they can re-adjust and integrate their national interests with regional interests then ASEAN can be stronger. The South China Sea dispute is a test for ASEAN. The dispute can be managed under the framework of China-ASEAN and the Code of Conduct.

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