AS we all know, the 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 the island of Taiwan, 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 overabundant oil reserves, fishing stocks and marine resources. Likewise, the South China Sea is also considered important for strategic security reasons, commercial shipping and potential hydrocarbons.
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 US and China in the Indo-Pacific region.
Given all these, the current challenge, with all the tensions in the South China Sea, particularly between the Philippines and China, is ensuring that the disputed waters remain calm, peaceful and stable. Likewise, it is also a challenge for claimant-states and Asean how to facilitate some kind of functional cooperation and a regime where all parties concerned will to a greater extent, abide and respect to lessen the tension and to foster productive cooperation rather than antagonism and confrontation between and among claimant-nations. It is also a considerable challenge to make the South China Sea can be a zone of peace and cooperation rather than one of the possible or potential flashpoints of military conflicts in the Asia Pacific region or Asean.
The answers to these questions are critical and crucial given that reality dictates that the dispute will most likely not be resolved anytime soon, given the situation’s complexity. Thus, the crafting, adoption and pursuit of a prudent, pragmatic, diplomatic and peaceful strategy based on the goodwill of all parties concerned toward a sensible practical, and prudent management and settlement of the dispute is a primordial consideration and, for the most part, is imperative.
Impact of dispute
Before I expound on how the dispute over the South China Sea could possibly be addressed, let me first mention some of its adverse impacts on claimant states. First, the dispute in the SCS, if it remains tension-driven and gets out of hand, will negatively affect the political relations of claimant states. This is, at the moment, very apparent and evident in the case of Philippines-China relations. The governments of both countries officially avow that the dispute and conflict of interest between the Philippines and China over the SCS is just a tiny portion of the totality of the bilateral relationship. That is quite true. Nevertheless, it impacts the political ties between the two countries negatively. This is the reality.
As far as the Filipino public is concerned, one of the current sources, if not the only potent source of anti-China sentiment among Filipinos, are the issues surrounding the conflict over the South China Sea. Thus far, the Filipino public is quite preoccupied with this issue. However, I would admit as well there are a lot of misconceptions in the minds of many Filipinos regarding the South China Sea dispute because of biased media reporting, more often than not by Western media, and anti-China propaganda by some avid pro-American elements in the Philippines. This is the crux of the matter.
Second, the dispute could hamper trade and economic cooperation between and among claimant states if not managed well. Local fisherfolk who fish in the South China Sea areas, whether from the Philippines or China, Vietnam or Brunei etc., are caught in between the dynamics and tug of war over the disputed waters among and between the governments of the claimant states. This is not a positive outlook at all.
Unfortunately, discussion on the dispute over the SCS has predominantly been geared toward the conventional discourse on territorial and maritime claims and, by extension, on the issues of nationalism, national identity, sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolable state boundaries, which more often than not, amplify and intensify the differences and the conflict of interests rather than cooperation. Hence, there is a need to move away from these divisive and counterproductive standpoints and look for alternative ways and means fastened on shared regional identity, common pool resources, shared humanity, joint development ventures and cooperation. If taken into consideration seriously, these factors will, in many ways, positively relieve and lessen tensions among the claimant nations and facilitate the peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the dispute over the South China Sea.
Nonetheless, I believe that half of the problem surrounding the South China Sea will be addressed to a considerable extent if only claimant states will have a shift in their mindset, putting more premium on the bigger picture, and that’s treating and regarding the South China Sea as a zone of peace, cooperation and prosperity rather than a source of potential conflict and competition over maritime and territorial claims. And if a shift in the mindset of claimant states from a “winner-takes-all” mentality and attitude toward a more collective and cooperative outlook takes precedence, then tensions in the SCS will dissipate or will be reduced to a greater degree.
I also believe that one of the possible ways to settle or at least to lessen the tensions in the South China Sea is if conflicting parties are open-minded enough and will pursue pragmatic cooperation concerning the management of shared resources for the benefit of their nationals. The proper management of resources in the disputed waters can be viewed as regional public goods. In this case, collective action among claimant-states is possible and doable, reducing tensions and potential conflicts in the disputed waters of the SCS.
On this note, 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-territorial integrity-related issues, and focus their attention 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 exploration, a cooperative endeavor in marine environmental protection and management, joint maritime patrols and the like, which will yield tangible benefits for the citizens/nationals of the claimant-states. Furthermore, any possible cooperative ventures that are forged between and among claimant states of the South China Sea, to a greater extent, will facilitate trust-building, understanding and confidence-building measures among concerned parties.
On the other hand, however difficult, the negotiations on the China-Asean Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea should be pursued with much vigor and pragmatism by China and Asean. The COC, I believe, is a viable diplomatic mechanism and an essential framework of rules, principles, norms, and decision-making procedures for managing and resolving disputes among claimant countries over the South China Sea.
Indeed, these win-win strategies are akin to turning the dilemma into an opportunity that engenders tangible benefits and fosters a better and progressive future for the nationals of the claimant states.
I know that resolving the territorial and maritime disputes over the South China Sea has a long way to go and will be an uphill battle. Without a doubt the process of building consensus may prove to be difficult, but it is not impossible. In contrast, confrontation on issues surrounding the disputed waters of the South China Sea will undoubtedly be self-defeating and counterproductive.
Source: The Manila Times