The Need to Kick-Start New Dialogue in the South China Sea

Recently, on August 22nd, a landmark ruling was held, stating that the islands in the South China Sea belonged to the Philippines, rather than the People’s Republic of China. Instead of settling the issue, it has infuriated both sides, with the PRC increasing its hostility towards opinions and contestants against its claim to the area, and the Philippines quoting the recent ruling as increased proof of their legitimacy over the islands.

Although such rulings seem to be cited as a microcosm of a geographic and historical issue bound to the South China Sea, the increased hostility between the two nations alludes to a greater sense of nationalistic fervor emerging within Asia, which unlike the past, has increasingly been backed by growing military clout and power. As China develops its military capabilities, increasing its striking power from a very local basis to an Asia-wide capability, it in turn develops its own political capabilities in its ability to deal with countries in Asia on an equal, or even imbalanced relationship. This has in turn exported a sense of nationalistic fervor both formally and informally, seen in minor incidents such as attacks on KFC stores and destroying bananas from the Philippines. Although the Chinese government has conducted itself with its usual sense of legality and formality, it itself has often times committed to sabre-rattling in defence of its claim over the area. Especially as nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines lack the military clout to physically provide any substantial obstacle to China’s contested claim, they themselves lack any practical political say in the matter. For them, negotiations or dialogue with China has been invariably unfruitful, as they simply remains words on paper, unable to be backed by any physical or economic means. Consequently, anger at China has cyclically emerged in protests, ranging from peaceful demonstrations to riots targeting Chinese owned entities in their nations. As the United States arguably acts as the main practical opposition to China’s contested claim within the South China Sea, the discussion regarding the issue has been generally cold and political, customarily being influenced by the repercussions for Sino-American relations in the case of negative output from such dialogue, but also the inability for America to touch base and truly connect with any deeper regional emotions concerning the issue.

Coming up with a lasting solution to this problem is a fragile issue, and will require careful planning and negotiations so as to overcome such deeply entrenched beliefs on both sides of the issue. As nations involved in the issue have begun to touch or have already been appealing to nationalistic sentiments, especially as seen in public media, a solution must invariably turn away from appealing to such isolated national emotions and embrace a situation of greater understanding of the issue between nations and its peoples. The embracing of nationalism, although currently kept to internet forums and domestic protests, will invariably lead to increased military buildup in the area, thus developing a sense of ever increasing hostility between nations and peoples. Consequently, steering away from the mindset of us (as a nation) versus them (as a nation) must be approached, however daunting the task may be.  The agreement to halt the habitation of any uninhabited islands in the South China Sea that was made recently on the 25th of July during the ASEAN Conference provides a small, yet decidedly important starting point for an envisioning of such new progress. Providing a brief hiatus of increasing development in the area, it allows for a breath of fresh air to be inserted into the increasingly stale and unproductive dialogue of current negotiations, setting a brief neutral starting point where all nations can politically start anew.

However, as China still has a large advantage in terms of military power in the South China Sea region, the Chinese willingness to de-militarize their assets will, for the foreseeable future, be negligible and inflexible. As China has just announced that it plans to hold a military exercise with Russia in the region, it only demonstrates and solidifies China’s belief that its claim to the area, and what it sees as its rightful militarization, can and must exist alongside a peaceful resolution to the issue of its claims in the South China Sea. Although that belief and its resulting resolution is not improbable, its probability of projecting and increasing nationalistic division between itself and its neighboring nations would most likely increase and accelerate. This brings cause for worry and greater hostility between the nations, therefore ever increasing the need for an alternative and less-militarized progression for all nations surrounding this issue.