Forging a regional maritime community with a unified and shared future in the SCS

By Prof. Anna Malindog-Uy

AMIDST the fiery apprehension unfolding in the South China Sea (SCS), where tensions between the Philippines and China are reaching a boiling point, I would like to share the intervention/talk that I delivered during the Parallel Session Forum 1 at the International Conference on Environment, Development and Human Rights: Marine Ecological Protection in the Process of Modernization on Sept. 26, 2023, in Beijing, China. This event brought together participants from around the world to explore international experiences and possible solutions to issues concerning marine environmental and global governance.

Today, I stand before you to address a matter of utmost importance — the need for building a regional maritime community with a unified vision and a shared future in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. This vision transcends borders and recognizes the SCS’ vital role in our collective well-being, prosperity and security.

The 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 and the Philippines, with multiple and overlapping territorial and maritime sovereignty and sovereign rights claims. Tensions in the SCS have, at times, threatened to disrupt the delicate balance of regional peace, security and cooperation. However, during these challenging moments, regional countries must come together with a shared commitment to dialogue, negotiation, diplomacy and cooperation.

Unified and shared future

The concept of a “unified and shared future” in the SCS is not merely a catchphrase but a profound call to action. It envisions a regional community where all nations, regardless of size or power, can coexist peacefully, resolve disputes through peaceful and diplomatic means, and harness the immense potential of this vital maritime area for the benefit of all.

Some of the fundamental principles that can guide regional countries, particularly Asean nations, in building a regional maritime community with a shared future in the SCS are:

Peaceful resolution of disputes. The foundation of this vision must be a commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes. Diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral dialogue and negotiation, and adherence to international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, should be the primary mechanisms for resolving disagreements and disputes in the contested waters of the SCS. Avoiding confrontations and seeking common ground must be the shared and unified goal.

Mutual trust and confidence-building. Building trust among nations is essential for stability. Confidence-building measures, such as transparency in military activities, joint maritime patrols and information-sharing mechanisms, can help foster trust and reduce the risk of misunderstandings.

Economic cooperation. The SCS holds vast economic potential. Promoting economic cooperation, such as joint exploration of resources, shared development projects and establishing maritime economic zones, would benefit all possible stakeholders.

Cultural exchange and people-to-people ties. A unified and shared future in the SCS is not just about governments; it’s about people. Cultural exchanges, educational programs and tourism can help bridge differences and foster greater understanding among the diverse communities in the region.

Regional multilateralism. Existing regional organizations and frameworks, such as Asean, Asean +1, provide platforms for dialogue and cooperation. Strengthening and utilizing these mechanisms can help facilitate peaceful resolution and coordination among SCS littoral states.

Regional cooperation. The SCS is a regional commons that could be a source for regional goods given its vast maritime resources, whose challenges require a regional response that promotes peace, stability, security and regional maritime cooperation.

Moving forward

Claimant states and third parties should view the SCS as a zone of peace and prosperity rather than a source of potential conflict in the Indo/Asia-Pacific region. They should focus their attention on the bigger picture.

Each claimant state in the disputed South China Sea has its respective claims and positions. Nevertheless, these differences should be resolved by parties directly involved through diplomacy, dialogue and negotiations with mutual respect, pragmatism and open-mindedness. Provocative actions like filing cases in international courts or bringing in a third party to the dispute will not help but further complicate the situation and cause more problems, putting regional cooperation, peace and security at risk.

On the SCS dispute, claimant states should manage disputes amicably and focus on cooperation, honoring the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and pushing for the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to create a more comprehensive strategic opportunity for regional peace, economic growth, development and community building. These strategic opportunities, coupled with joint efforts and cooperation, especially in times of difficulties and crisis, should be the genes of Asean-China relations for further advancement.

Likewise, there’s a need for a shift in mindset and orientation in addressing the contentions in the SCS. There should be a shift in the perspective from a “winner-takes-all” mentality and attitude toward a more collective outlook. Likewise, there’s a need to move 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, keeping frictions at a low-key and as much as possible at the minimum, and exchanges between parties pleasant and respectful.

Most importantly, it is also vital for Asean to continue to assert Asean Centrality in regional dynamics. It must continue to pursue and play a more active, neutral/nonaligned role in regional security architecture. Asean must ensure that the SCS won’t be used as a theater and a battleground in the ongoing geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomics major rivalry and competition between superpowers, for it will not benefit regional countries.

The dispute on the SCS between Asean claimant member states and China is a conflict that should not dampen the spirit of cooperation and good neighborliness between and among claimant states.

SCS claimant states as Asian countries and neighbors across a narrow strip of water are more characterized by peaceful coexistence over discords and conflicts for thousands of years, and I believe will continue to be so in the future. I believe friendship, good neighborliness, mutual respect and understanding are always the mainstream Asean-China relations. Indeed, this bond of friendship will stand the test of time despite the troubled waters of the SCS.

Conclusion

To conclude, I am aware that building a regional maritime community with a unified and shared future in the SCS is not an easy task, but it is necessary. It requires a resolute political resolve and commitment to peace, cooperation, bilateralism, multilateralism and international law. It demands a willingness to set aside differences in pursuit of a common goal — a future where the SCS is a source of harmony, prosperity, peace and security for all.

Let us remember that history has shown us that nations can choose cooperation over conflict and negotiation/dialogue over confrontation. The SCS is not just a point of contention but also a point of convergence. Together, we can shape a future where the SCS symbolizes regional cooperation and shared prosperity rather than division and discord.

Let us recognize that the SCS is not merely a body of water but a shared destiny that binds all claimant states together. Our choices today will echo through generations to come, and we have the power to ensure that those echoes resound with cooperation, security, stability, prosperity and peace.

The vision of a regional maritime community with a unified and shared future in the SCS is not an idealistic or romantic dream but a practical and attainable goal. It is a testament to our collective commitment to rising above differences, embracing common interests and nurturing a future where nations in the region thrive together.

The destiny of the SCS is in our hands, and it is our responsibility to ensure that it is a destiny of security, unity, prosperity and harmony. A destiny that leads to a brighter, more stable, more peaceful and more prosperous future for the region and for all who call the SCS a shared home.

 

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

is a PhD economics candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development in China’s Peking University. She is analyst, director and vice president for external affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a Manila-based think tank.

 

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