The intractable South China Sea
8 Oct 2013|

South China Sea from 30000 ftThe South China Sea is ‘probably the world’s single most complex, and intractable, international relations problem’. Gareth Evans, in proclaiming the South China Sea as the biggest and most complex headache, didn’t mention any of the other contenders. Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea and Syria jumped to my mind as I heard the  line from Australia’s longest serving Labor Foreign Minister and the President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group.

As a man who wields words with precision and force, Evans would have considered all of those and more before giving the South China Sea the dark honour of being the ‘single most complex’ issue confronting the globe. And he’d enjoy arguing the merits of the various cases.

As Chancellor of the ANU, Evans was launching the National Security College paper, ‘The South China Sea and Australia’s Regional Security Environment’. He even injected some optimism into the proceedings which was notably at odds with the stance of many of the eleven authors in the paper.

Evans says ‘senior Chinese are becoming more conscious of the soft power, reputational, implications of these issues’ and he thinks China might respond to ‘sustained and relentless international pressure’. Some big unknowns shroud such hopes—especially whether China would ever be prepared to define the extent and meaning of its South China Sea claims as the basis for serious negotiations.

Jian Zhang’s chapter on China’s growing assertiveness points to an intriguing mix of a strength and fear to explain this:

  1. China’s tougher posture represents ‘a major and arguably long-term strategic shift in China’s policy’
  2. rather than being motivated by ambition or the quest for regional dominance, China is anxious that that its previous moderate stance failed to protect its sovereignty and maritime interests from intensified encroachments
  3. China is driven by an increasing recognition of the importance and legitimacy of the international law of sea. Ironically, this understanding causes China to become more assertive so it can build a stronger legal basis to consolidate its claims.

The ‘consolidation’ effort has become a scary expression of China’s growing power. Leszek Buszynski says China is using assertion and harassment to intimidate ASEAN:

Prolonged Chinese harassment is intended to unnerve the ASEAN claimants and to induce them to settle bilaterally with China. The best interpretation of China’s actions is that it seeks to hustle the ASEAN claimants into recognising China’s historical claim to the area. However, China’s actions have the potential to draw in external powers that are disturbed by what they understand to be China’s threat to the strategic sea lanes of the area. The United States has reaffirmed its alliance ties with the Philippines and has sought a security relationship with Vietnam. India and Japan have also expressed their concerns. At the prospect of the involvement of external powers, China may draw back, as it has in the past, but a more confident and nationalistic China may continue to press its claim over the South China Sea, deciding that these external powers would avoid confrontation with it. This would be a reckless step that could result in unintended clashes and destabilising escalation.

The harassment is working to the extent that ASEAN is, indeed, deeply unnerved. ASEAN would love to get the offer Beijing is making Washington of a new strategic relationship, but fears that the pain and the pressure will just keep building.

The big change to the narrative this year was the brave decision by the Philippines in January to start proceedings against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It’s a logical response by the Philippines to the reality that it has the weakest navy in the region. Giving a Manila perspective, Renator Cruz De Castro, writes that ‘China’s development of naval brinkmanship’ has dramatised the painfully weak state of the armed forces of the Philippines.

By taking China before the bar of international law (and international opinion), Manila has got well out ahead of the rest of ASEAN and made itself China’s chief target. The atmospherics of this are chilling for Manila, especially as the central element of its case is the rejection of the validity of China’s ‘nine dash line’ marking its claim to most of the South China Sea.

In February, China announced that it would not take part in the UNCLOS proceedings. Yet the Tribunal has the power to declare that it has jurisdiction over the dispute, even if China refuses to appear. Donald Rothwell, ANU professor of international law, writes that the case is a chance to bring some certainty to the interpretation and application of the UNCLOS in the South China Sea. If the Tribunal does take the case it would be the first time an international court or tribunal had dipped into these troubled waters and Rothwell sees ‘the potential to bring clarity to some of the legal issues’.

Clarity is what China doesn’t want, because it would further expose the extravagance of its claims. The contest between intimidation and international law is set to intensify. And what is Australia’s approach to this intractable issue that touches all of its key strategic and trade relationships?

As characterised by Michael Wesley, the official Australian response is to stay quiet and hope that others will fix the mess:

Although Australian foreign policy makers would never admit it, their approach to the South China Sea appears to be motivated first and foremost by the desire not to offend key relationships. On the one hand, the loud protestations that Australia has no role in resolving the disputes appears to be motivated by a fear of offending China, Australia’s largest trading partner and an increasingly important regional actor. On the other, Australia’s advocacy for a Code of Conduct demonstrates a desire to keep the countries of ASEAN on side.

Wesley sees Canberra’s risk-averse approach to the South China Sea as a metaphor for ‘the growing pusillanimity of Australian diplomacy in the 21st Century’.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Stratman2.