Can America’s involvement in the South-China Sea dispute contribute to an effective conflict resolution?

Posted: October 22, 2011 in English, Realpolitik
Tags: , , , , , ,

by Yu-Hsuan Chang and Jan Tzschichhold

The South-China Sea has been an area of conflict for many decades but in 2010 has once again become the centre of attention for a variety of Asian countries. The end of the Cold War highlighted the conflict over natural resources. Besides overlapping claims of China and Vietnam over the Paracel island chain, which also involves Taiwan as the representation of the “Republic of China”, there have been  various claims over the Spartly archipelago which are also partly claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The huge interest in mostly uninhabited islands, atolls and sandbanks cannot simply be explained by the territory’s fisheries and related historical claims, but is attributed to the belief that South-China Sea is enormously rich in hydrocarbon as a source of energy. In order to find a solution for this many sided conflict and to preserve the freedom of navigation in the sea, the United States declared in July 2010 that the South-China Sea represents an American “national interest”. While some argue that the involvement of the US might worsen or escalate the whole conflict in the South-China Sea, others argue that America’s involvement can finally create an opportunity for a constructive conflict resolution.

The US: an unwanted intruder in an Asian conflict

American involvement will not contribute to conflict resolution in this area; even there are interests in the region, despite the warm welcome by countries such as Vietnam and Philippians in order to balance a powerful China. Firstly, American interest is not permanent because it geo-politically does not belong to this region. A permanent conflict resolution requires solely local participation without foreign interference. Any resolution with American involvement cannot last long as China grows stronger and American becomes weaker, at least in Asia. Secondly, China rejects American participation and China considers the U.S as an unfriendly power. An unwelcome guest cannot make significant change to the situation when the possibility of cooperation declines made by foreign interruption.

Another key problem is that this regional dispute regards to sovereignty issue, which in a short term seams to have no solution. Additionally, sovereignty issues can never solved by a third party country. Natural resources become more  demanding when all the surrounding states are developing in economic scope and political influence, particularly China. While Chinese attitude toward this region appears firm and strong, Vietnamese and Philippine interests are not bound to sway under Chinese superpower. An effective solution would be to take advantage of the Association of Southeast Asian nations and develop conflict resolution solutions that involve only Asian nations.

The unequal power gap between China and South Asian countries is apparent. However, this should not becomes a reason to contain Americans into the conflict. American involvement brings more harm than good mainly because China, the major player, can never allow the breach of sovereignty interfered by foreign countries. On the other hand, to balance Chinese power, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and perhaps  Taiwan must develop cooperation framework on security matters. Once again, ASEAN presents an existing institutional framework. Furthermore, for the U.S, intervening in sovereign conflicts in South China will not be a good idea. In conclusion, there is no forthcoming result produced in a short term due to aggressive attitudes of each side. American may keep distance from sovereign issue, while all participants except China welcome their involvement.

Restoring the Balance between David and Goliath

Many of the conflicting claims in the South-China Sea could be solved under the United Nations Convention of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that was established in 1982. However, a joint-submission of Vietnam and Malaysia in 2009 that would create a separate exclusive economic zone for uninhabited islands according to the UNCLOS was objected by China, that tabled its own map. According to this historical map, dating back to 1946, China had not only the sovereign right over both main island chains but the map also includes oil and gas fields more than three times further from its own coast than they are from Vietnam.

Another alternative to minimize the risk of conflict was the “Declaration on Conduct” to which the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China agreed on in 2002. But since then, China has been engaged in inflammatory acts like sending a mini-submarine 3700 meters down to the ground of the South-China Sea to plant a Chinese flag on the sandbed, it has started to build an oil rig on disputed ground and it has cut the cables of a Vietnamese Survey boat. Furthermore China prefers to negotiate with each neighbouring country separately rather than with ASEAN as a whole, but it is clear that each country on their own will loose out against the mighty China.

Why is America’s involvement now so important? Since China refuses to accept the presence of the Asian organisation ASEAN as mediator many related countries hope that the US could fulfill this role, which would also serve to balance the position of weaker states against China. The US had and still has an important role in Asia in particular regarding to stabilization of the region. Its military capabilities and support are crucial for the existence of countries like Taiwan and South-Korea and the preservation of the status quo. Even though it has no natural border to the disputed region, the stability of its economic partners and the freedom of navigation of such an important trade routes make the South-China Sea a national interest for America. The rapid rise of China can create enormous regional instability and a huge potential for future conflict, especially if China keeps on acting as ruthless and self-orientated as it does in the South-China Sea. The US has the capabilities and the will to create a balance in the Asian region, and is particularly important regarding the South-China Sea as it has the power to bring small countries on eye-level with China on the negotiation table. America’s involvement is therefore not about flexing the muscles and confronting rising China, but about protecting the sovereignty and the interest of smaller states that are clearly disadvantaged in this regional dispute.

(Picture by Steve Carroll, seen in the Economist)

  1. Franz says:

    na das entspricht ja in etwa der streitigkeiten um die arktis in europa und den usa, hab das im text nicht ganz gerafft, wer hätte den theoretisch die ansprüche, die am ehesten durchzusetzen wären (nicht nach größe des landes, sondern historisch o.Ä.)?

    p.s. schöne grüße von marcus

    • Immer wieder schön von dir zu hören 🙂 Das Hauptproblem ist, dass jeder, der Ansprüche erhebt, diese mit komplett unterschiedlichen Fakten und Zusammenhänge begründet. Man könnte sagen, dass historisch gesehen, das Sud-Chinesische-Meer zu China gehört, aber dann geht man nur bis 1946 zurück. Davor gehört das Meer zu dem jeniegen, der am Stärksten war. Wenn man es nun historisch begründet könnten also auch Japan, die Phillipinen und sogar Frankreich als Koloniale Macht anspruch erheben. Ich denke jedoch, dass man die Grenzen nach internationalen Richtlinien ziehen muss. Das heißt jedes Land (in der Welt) kann Gewässer beanspruchen, die innerhalb von einem 200 Meilen Radius der Terretorialen Grenze liegen. Alles darüber hinaus ist internationales Gewässer. China, wäre mit dieser Regelung jedoch klar der Verlierer….hier zeigt sich wieder, dass die mächtigen Nationen in Internationalen Beziehungen sich nicht immer an die Regeln halten müssen.
      Gruß an Markus…

  2. Franz says:

    Sind denn die Chinesen überhaubt zu Verhandlungen bereit oder ist denen das eh Schnuppe, ob irgendwer da irgendwas beschließt. Denn die sind ja häufig eher schwerer von ihrer Meinung abzubringen.

  3. Norine says:

    you will have a terrific blog right here! would you like to make some invite posts on my weblog?

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