South China Sea (SCS) is one of the most in-demand waterways in the world. Aside from the fact that it is a sensitive topic, for the most part, it is a disputed area involving multiple countries like China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan, China with multiple claims.
The disputed waters of the South China Sea are indeed the object of contention among the claimant states with overlapping territorial and maritime sovereignty and sovereign rights claims.
Fundamentally, the claimant states of the disputed South China Sea struggle and compete over sovereignty with no straightforward and trouble-free legal remedy and antidote. Another point of contention among the claimant states relates to exclusive sovereign rights over abundant oil reserves, fishing stocks, and marine resources. Likewise, the South China Sea is also considered important for strategic security reasons, commercial shipping, and potentially hydrocarbons.
There are also bilateral and trilateral disputes among ASEAN members over maritime boundary demarcation. There are also bilateral and multilateral disputes among ASEAN members and China over sovereignty and sovereign rights and jurisdiction based on the Exclusive Economic Zone as prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Also, the dispute and tensions over the contested waters of the South China Sea, time and again, have been heightened by unbridled nationalism and by the great power rivalries and competition between the United States (US) and China in the Indo-Pacific region. And this is one of the main reasons why, most often than not, the South China Sea’s contested waters are considered one of the three major possible flashpoints or potential sources of conflict in the Asia Pacific region that has been drawing a considerable amount of attention.
Hence, the said dispute is still unresolved and most likely will not be resolved anytime soon.
Given the ever-changing, volatile, and challenging geopolitical realities of the Asia Pacific/Indo-Pacific region, and given the complexity of the situation of the South China Sea, the crafting, adoption, and pursuance of a prudent, pragmatic, diplomatic, and peaceful strategy based on the goodwill of all parties concerned toward the settlement of the dispute is a primordial consideration and for the most part, is imperative. In doing so, time is of the essence.
SCS a Zone of Peace and Prosperity
In this regard, I think the first consideration is for claimant-states of the disputed South China Sea to put more premium on the bigger picture, and that’s treating and regarding the South China Sea as a zone of peace and prosperity rather than a source of potential conflict in the Asia Pacific region. This challenging and daunting task can be guided and facilitated based on the principles enshrined in the ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality).
ZOPFAN is a declaration made by ASEAN member states to keep Southeast Asia free from any form or manner of interference from “outside powers,”; practicing peaceful co-existence, preserving the independence and sovereignty of individual states, and broadening areas of cooperation.
The second important consideration is moving away from a Western-oriented direct confrontational megaphone diplomacy or way of resolving or settling disputes toward a more oriental or Asian way of dispute resolution, which puts a premium on the preservation of harmony, frictions are kept lowkey and as much as possible at the minimum, and exchanges between parties are pleasant and respectfully.
Third, there should be a clear understanding that the South China Sea dispute is sensitive and complicated. There is no easy solution to this dispute, and it can’t be resolved overnight. Therefore, the dispute should be managed properly, and manage the differences in good faith, with lots of patience, creativity, and goodwill.
Fourth, there should be a shift in the mindset from a “winners-takes-all” mentality and attitude toward a more collective outlook. Again, the South China Sea should be treated as a zone of peace, cooperation, joint development, and management of resources.
Fifth, it is also vital for ASEAN to continue to pursue and play a more active, neutral/non-aligned role in regional security through the ASEAN Regional Forum and other venues.
Most importantly, constructive relations between and among the claimant-states coupled with multilateralism within the ambit of international laws and the ASEAN and pushing for the China-ASEAN Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea are also essential considerations for the settlement of the dispute.
Upon its conclusion, the COC will play a critical role in resolving the South China Sea dispute and reducing the potential for conflict. The COC, I believe, is a viable diplomatic mechanism as it can provide international rules-based order for the South China Sea. Likewise, the COC is important as it provides a framework of rules, principles, norms, and decision-making procedures for managing and resolving disputes among claimant countries over the South China Sea. An ASEAN-China COC on the South China Sea will create new forms of commonality and cooperation among the parties through dialogues and negotiations.
However, equally important, for the ASEAN-China COC to be effective, it must be supplemented by the institutionalization of additional multilateral and bilateral negotiations among claimant countries on matters related to fishery management, marine environmental cooperation, and oil and gas development, among others, which are important economic issues that might trigger potential conflicts if not addressed adequately, however, might trigger dispute resolution if pursued in good faith.
Low Politics vs. High Politics
Indeed, given the complexities and intricacies of the issues surrounding the disputed waters of the South China Sea, which is unlikely to go away any time soon, it is indeed more pragmatic and productive for all claimant-states to put aside for the meantime the “high politics” dimension of the dispute which pertains to contentions over sovereignty-related issues, and focus their attentions and energies on the “low politics” dimension of the dispute, and that refers to looking for possible areas of constructive cooperation, like joint fishery management, joint oil and gas explorations, a cooperative endeavor in marine environmental protection and management, joint maritime patrols and the likes, which will yield tangible benefits for the peoples of the claimant-states. These activities build trust, understanding, and confidence between and among the claimant states and their people.
At the end of the day, what matters most is the fundamental interests of the claimant countries and their peoples.
Though the current situation in the South China Sea is far from ideal, we can’t deny that the region is peaceful, and the potential for economic success and prosperity is enormous. Thus, it is indeed imperative for this relative peace not to be disrupted and for the dispute not to be given leeway to fester and grow.
Indeed, there is no better time than now to start for the claimant-states to address the dispute within the purview of low politics against high politics.
All concerned parties and external powers who are non-parties to the dispute, which have a presence in the region, must work together toward collective regional interests, prosperity, security, and peace.
Indeed, the process of building consensus may prove to be difficult but is not impossible, while confrontation on issues surrounding the disputed waters certainly is self-defeating.