The territorial disputes over the maritime features in the South China Sea have been ongoing for more than 60 years and show no sign of being resolved. Instead, recent events seem to indicate that they are increasingly spiralling out of control. The littoral states in the region, principally Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, China; and to a lesser extent Indonesia and Brunei, all have overlapping claims within the region. Complicating the issue are increasingly interlinked crises in the Asia-Pacific region. Non-regional states are increasingly involved in the disputes in the South China Sea, as evidenced by the increased entanglement of northeast and South Asian states such as South Korea and India becoming major players in ASEAN’s affairs.
The most recent round of conflict began around 2010 when Chinese island-building activity set off a new wave of disputes. Since then, tensions between China and the littoral states of the South China Sea rose greatly. In addition, other non-claimants including Japan, the United States, and Australia are becoming increasingly involved in the maritime disputes. The United States has led several “Freedom of Navigation” exercises that were meant to show the Chinese that the United States and its allies will not accept Chinese claims of 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone based on the maritime features that encompass almost the whole South China Sea. China has responded that American naval exercises are a violation of Chinese sovereignty and that these exercises are aimed at forestalling China’s economic and political rise. The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that reduced all the maritime features in the Spratly Islands to rocks was the highpoint of these tensions. Chinese media worked to undermine the ruling through questioning the legitimacy of the PCA, the qualification of the judges, and that the arbitration itself was a violation of international law. The United States and its allies for their part have loudly proclaimed China as violating international law and demand compliance with a ruling that would undermine decades of claims made by China.
The disputes over the features and maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that peaked in 2016 has since subsided somewhat. The abrupt policy change of the Philippines and the toning down of rhetoric by China secure ASEAN cooperation in its One Belt, One Road initiative, and the 19th National Congress has led to a temporary lull in tensions. This lull, however, is not likely to be permanent. First, the current conflict has been ongoing for more than 60 years with varying levels of intensity. Second, the ultimate source of the dispute, which is ambiguity in the disposal of territories the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952, has never been addressed.
Although current tensions in the region have somewhat subsided, it is very likely that without a more permanent solution, tensions will soon return. China’s 19th National Congress is not likely to last forever. Furthermore, while the One Belt, One Road and other Chinese initiatives are having a moderate influence in the region’s tensions, they might not be permanent. Previous Chinese foreign investments have caused local backlashes, whether from disgruntled locals or from opposition politicians that accuse the incumbent governments in countries that have received these investments of corruption when approving said investments. Furthermore, as the fight over the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) demonstrated, it is unlikely that these Chinese initiatives in founding new organizations will be seen as neutral and political tensions are likely to continue. More likely, these Chinese initiatives will be interpreted by many as political projects intended to enlarge Chinese economic and political influence.
Previous responses to the dispute in the South China Sea have been problematic. Militarily, the United States has initiated numerous “Freedom of Navigation” exercises in the South China Sea involving the latest and most cutting-edge of American naval assets in the region. Despite Chinese warnings, these exercise fleets have numerous times sailed close to maritime territory claimed by the P.R.C. to demonstrate that the U.S. and its allies do not recognize Chinese claims. China for its part has militarized the artificial islands it has built with airstrips, military docks, and missiles. The military confrontation in the South China Sea threatens to spiral out of control in the event of a misunderstanding. The string of incidents where American and Chinese military aircraft have flown very close to each other, and in some instances even switching on their targeting radars, demonstrate the dangers of such a futile demonstration of strength.
The military confrontation between China and the United States is also having a psychological effect that is making a peaceful solution less likely. Both the United States and China have demonized each other and blame the other party for raising tensions. The conflict in the South China Sea, at least in how it is portrayed in the media of these countries, is less about finding a peaceful solution but more of shifting the blame. It is somewhat common knowledge that when trust is low between two parties, they will view any action by the other party as malicious. In contrast, when they trust each other, they are willing to overlook or even excuse some offensive actions that may be detrimental to the other party’s interests. The situation in the South China Sea demonstrates an alarming lack of trust by both the United States and China, which in turn undermines the prospects of a lasting solution.
To truly solve the dispute over the maritime features in the South China Sea would require a complete overhaul of the current framework. The previous patterns of confrontation, followed by periods of lull, demonstrate that previous methods can only delay but not resolve the current problems. The most evident problem is to foster trust between the parties. The current lack of trust is contributing to the tensions and the risks inherent in the confrontational approaches. As mentioned previously, lack of trust can easily lead to misinterpretation of the other party’s actions and a more obsessive focus on the small details at the expense of the bigger picture. The current obsession with “national honour” in China and many of the claimants and the self-righteous attitude expressed by the United States are all undermining all these parties’ ability to find the willingness to cooperate and solve the currently volatile tensions. Everyone acknowledges that open conflict would be bad, but no one is willing to stop holding a match close to the powder keg.
The second step is to build a regional institution or framework that can prevent the destructive great power competition from self-perpetuating. There is some validity to the claim that institutionalism can moderate the effect of great power competition. The rise of international organizations such as the UN after WWII designed to accommodate competing states so they will not settle their differences with their armies was a major step forward. Even within Southeast Asia, the foundation of ASEAN has led to a steady decline in animosity between the original South China Sea claimants of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines since the 1950s. Institutional management of differences that involve all of the disputing parties, instead of China and the United States claiming to be regional leaders representing local “interests” and talking over the heads of everyone else, is the best and most peaceful way to manage the conflict and one day resolve it.
What is clear is that there is no unilateral solution to the conflict in the South China Sea. Unilateralism, whether military or even legalistic such as the PCA ruling, only raises tensions. What is needed are grassroots actions that lower destructive nationalism that begins with people-to-people levels. National governments that simply impose a solution over other parties, whether through military might, economic bribery, or legal actions, are not likely to lower tensions in the region.