South China Sea Disputes: Diplomacy Key to Calming Troubled Waters

By Michael Vatikiotis

Claims in the South China Sea. Michael Vatikiotis argues that track two diplomacy remains the best option to defuse tension among claimants in the region. Source: CSIS Southeast Asia Program's flickr photostream.

Recent arguments between ASEAN member states who are claimants to parts of the South China Sea and China, which claims sovereignty over almost the entire maritime area, have seriously upset the strategic equilibrium of the region. Temperatures are rising, especially as China also aggressively challenges Japan’s claim to the Diaoyu / Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

The row over contested claims in the South China Sea has damaged ties between ASEAN and its giant neighbor to the North, helped fuel boundary disputes with Japan and pushed the United States into adopting a more muscular security posture across the region. ASEAN member states are now at odds with one another over how to deal with China, which has undermined the traditional consensus-driven dynamics of the 10-member bloc and opened up the possibility of disagreement in other areas.

How to restrain and contain the problem and restore the equilibrium of the recent past should now be the focus of regional diplomacy. In this respect the region faces two options – one harder and more dangerous than the other.

The hard way would be to use the rift over China’s claim to the South China Sea to persuade Beijing to modify its claim and agree to a new set of parameters embedded in multilateral agreement and international law. This has been the approach adopted by ASEAN claimant states, specifically the Philippines and Vietnam, backed by the United States. They want China to agree to a code of conduct that would provide a basis for fixing long-term claims in the context of the international law of the sea. Indonesia, as a non-claimant state, is trying to mediate by calling for a special meeting on the issue on the sidelines of the next ASEAN leaders meeting but this head-on approach may be too direct for China to accept.

China is unlikely to agree to anything that would erode its strongly-asserted claims. The loss of international face would bring shame to China’s leadership and more particularly to the powerful military establishment, which will be seen to have caved in to “barbarian” demands. Pushed into a corner like this, China’s response could quite possibly be to use military means to defend and even exercise its claims. The Chinese navy has already bared its fangs on a few occasions lately.

Perhaps a more effective approach is to think in terms of managing and containing rather than resolving the problem. The formula for doing so is neither complex nor expensive. In fact, it illustrates the value of historical ties and track-two diplomacy in dealing with the thorniest of issues in the region. China tends to rely on diplomatic channels it considers friendly and trusted. Vietnam and the Philippines, the two most vociferous claimant states, have prompted an aggressive response because China considers them abrasive and unfriendly. Thailand is, without doubt, China’s most trusted and valued ASEAN interlocutor and has the advantage of not being a claimant state. It was Thailand that assured China of continued friendship at the height of the Cold War and was one of the first to restore formal diplomatic relations in the 1970s. Later Thailand spearheaded the shaping of ASEAN -China relations in the 1990s, and Thailand remains the coordinator of ASEAN dialogue with China.

It is now time for Thailand to take the lead using quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy to repair the damage that was done, first by allowing major powers like the United States to criticize China at ASEAN forums, and then to force China to show its hand by preventing an ASEAN consensus at the recent foreign ministers meeting in Phnom Penh. Using other issues of mutual concern to rebuild trust and confidence, this could be done at the senior official level at first, and well ahead of the next leaders summit.

Once a measure of harmony has been restored, then it will be important to coax China back to the table to discuss the South China Sea. For the past 20 years or more, Indonesia has steered a series of workshops on the South China Sea, funded mainly by Canada, to discuss the modalities of cooperation and peaceful coexistence in a multi-claimant setting. The workshops, which are unofficial but facilitated by the Indonesian ministry of foreign affairs, have been conducted with patience and without fanfare. As a non-claimant state, Indonesia can usefully act as a neutral convener, and as it is at the track-two level, poses no threat to China. Their architect of the workshops is a mild-mannered and bookish retired Indonesian diplomat who has traveled the world in search of a formula that would accommodate the asymmetric factors driving this conflict. Professor Hasjim Djalal’s efforts are nothing short of heroic in the face of almost impossible odds. He has strived for a solution that focuses less on claims and boundaries and more on cooperation and joint development. For there is virtually no chance that China will formally drop its “nine dot and nine dash” claim over a maritime region that extends so far south that it brushes up against Indonesian territorial waters. Indonesia is not a claimant state, which provides the basis for its arbitration role.

These workshops and the accumulated confidence they have established over the years have been largely ignored in the sound and the fury of the latest arguments. But this doesn’t mean the effort has been wasted. In fact, they may once again be the key to restoring a sense of calm. For it is hard to imagine anything other than China’s compliance to discuss the issue at an unofficial or track-two level – and to discuss it endlessly, to avoid ever having to reach a humiliating or face-losing agreement.

Diplomacy is the art of the possible, and in this regard, dealing with China on sensitive issues of sovereignty demands pragmatic, often discreet and low-level but constant engagement. For a country that still adheres to positions and principles inscribed by bureaucrats in the imperial era, China cannot be expected to turn on a diplomatic dime. To be sure, these approaches to resolving the problem will be greeted with derision by hard-line claimant states as yet another kowtow to China. But such steps at least stand the chance of succeeding, as they have before. The alternative is discord and dangerous confrontation.

Mr. Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore.


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