South China Sea dispute can only have a fair solution by keeping the South-East Asian grouping at the heart 

At a recent seminar organised to mark the third anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute, Ambassador of Vietnam to India, Pham Sanh Chau, raised some interesting points. The seminar focussed on rising tensions in the SCS amid China’s bellicosity in the region despite the PCA ruling. As things stand, China has continued to build artificial islands and expand reefs and rocks to attain a dominant position in the SCS. Many of these artificial islands have also been militarised with Chinese hangers, radars, missile batteries and fighter jets. This, despite the fact that competing claims over SCS waters and islands exist with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and even Indonesia asserting their sovereignty over different parts of the region.

But Beijing has disregarded all of these as well as the PCA ruling. It points to its ancient Nine Dash lines as historical cartographic evidence of its sovereignty over much of the SCS. And by putting assets on the ground, it has been buttressing its claims via possession. There are multiple reasons why China wants to dominate the SCS region. As the global axis of power shifts from the West to the East, Asia, particularly East Asia, is set to see a period of exponential economic growth. And within Asia, it is the SCS region ringed by the ASEAN nations that are set to emerge as a major node of economic growth. 

This is because of the sheer volume of trade and energy that is expected to flow through the SCS to feed the rising economies of the region. China wants to be the big boss here so that it can mould this vital growth artery according to its interests. It also, perhaps, fears that the SCS can be used by its adversaries to choke it off. After all, 70% of crude bound for China traverses through the region.  Thus, Beijing is putting down military assets in the area to ensure that no one can hold its interests to ransom through the SCS. 

But what China is doing in the SCS is unilateralism. It is nakedly putting its interests above everyone else’s in the region. And in an increasingly interconnected world such unilateralism is bound to create tensions. In fact, if there is one thing that recent conflicts have shown it is that shared prosperity is the only route to long-term peace and security. And so it should be with the SCS. Given that several countries have sovereignty claims here and more than $3.5 trillion worth of global trade passes through the region, it is only fair that mechanisms are put in place to respect freedom of navigation and overflight, conduct joint patrolling, exploit natural resources jointly and resolve disputes via a permanent, mutually acceptable process. 

The only way this can happen is through a legally binding Code of Conduct (CoC). This is currently being negotiated between China and ASEAN. But there are doubts over China’s intentions even here. First, China is said to be averse to making the CoC legally binding. But such a non-binding CoC will be meaningless. Second, China has also shown the propensity to negotiate with other claimant states on a one-on-one basis. It feels that in this way it can bring the full weight of its diplomatic might on smaller states. This is why the CoC must be negotiated by ASEAN as a whole with China, and no ASEAN member should have separate understandings with Beijing. 

True, there are countries like Cambodia and Laos that don’t have any claims over the SCS. But China should not be allowed to drive a wedge between them and other ASEAN members. In fact, ASEAN members must realise that the future success of the ASEAN community depends on their solidarity. In this regard, Vietnam’s Ambassador Pham had some interesting suggestions. He mentioned that Vietnam wants the freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS to be maintained and economic activities in the region to be secure. But he also said that sometimes he feels it is difficult to reconcile the two. In other words, ASEAN is caught between economic interests and ensuring freedom of navigation, or in trying to ensure freedom of navigation, economic interests are hurt, and in trying to secure economic interests, freedom of navigation gets hurt. 

The only way ASEAN can get out of this is through strengthening mutual trust, controlling all disputes and refraining from changing the status quo. Ambassador Pham further suggested increasing positive developments in the region so as to create stakes in shared prosperity. This is a good idea because at the moment negatives appear to be overtaking positives, as exemplified by the repercussions of the US-China trade war and Washington’s freedom of navigation operations in the SCS and Beijing’s counter to these. 

So the most desirable way forward is to find negotiated solutions, create shared positive momentum, and make ASEAN central to SCS’s future. Both the US and China should talk to ASEAN. And the CoC between ASEAN and China should be concluded on the basis of shared prosperity and justice instead of zero-sum game. 

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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