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U.S. President Donald Trump has offered to act as a mediator in the continuing South China Sea dispute. It comes before the imminent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, Philippines, where all parties central to the debate will be in attendance. Whilst all parties central to the debate have indicated a desire for peaceful solutions, Trump’s offer serves to provide further opportunities for the dispute’s diplomatic resolve.
To first understand the significance of Trump’s offer, it is necessary to outline what this dispute entails, and why it continues. Essentially, the South China Sea region is economically lucrative. According to ChinaPower, a project by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, ‘one-third of global shipping’ pass through the area, carrying an ‘estimated US$3 trillion in trade annually.’ The area also contains large fisheries and possible oil and gas reserves below the seabed. Territorial claims over the region have subsequently been contested for many years. Most recently, China’s construction of man-made islands and increased military presence has widened the debate, with non-claimant states, such as the U.S. and Australia, advocating solutions that protect trade routes. Meanwhile, others, such as Cambodia, are encouraging Chinese militarization to strengthen political and economic relations. Whilst the forthcoming ASEAN summit is predicted to address the dispute, the likelihood of progress is uncertain, as a consensus is required for action.
Despite such contrasting views, there is agreement among states that the dispute should be settled peacefully and diplomatically. This was specifically expressed by Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, who according to Reuters, stated that Vietnam’s policy to settle such disputes was through peaceful negotiations with ‘respect for diplomatic and legal processes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.’ However, whilst states have voiced their support of this view, little action has occurred. This was most recently highlighted by the South China Sea Arbitration, where The Hague supported the territorial claims of the Philippines at the expense of China’s. According to The Guardian, the tribunal also determined China’s military and territorial expansion to be a ‘violation of Philippine’s sovereign rights.’ Whilst such a ruling provided a possible ‘peaceful solution,’ it has had little effect, with both China and Taiwan refusing to acknowledge it.
Whether Trump’s offer will be considered seriously is arguable. As the U.S. has no territorial claims over the area and is an advocate for peaceful solutions, Trump could be a useful and relatively unbiased mediator. However, the extent of this neutrality is questionable, as the U.S. is ultimately opposed to China’s military expansion, as evidenced through its continued military involvement in the area through ‘freedom of navigation’ operations.
Regardless of whether Trump’s offer is accepted, the sentiment of the proposal is promising. It is through such propositions that the virtualization of a peaceful solution to the South China Sea becomes more likely. Moreover, as an offer grounded on non-violent principles, Trump’s suggestion marks a distinct and positive divergence from previous U.S. stances that elicited aggressive responses, including threats of, as reported by Chinese media outlets, such as the Global Times and China Daily, a ‘large scale war.’ In contrast, Trump’s current offer lacks an aggression that encourages violent solutions; a new diplomatic strategy that is to be both encouraged and applauded. Fundamentally, this strategy establishes a precedent and a foundation for future diplomacy, whereby issues are resolved by negotiations with no violence.