Seeking Peace in the South China Sea

With evidence of chemical weapons being used by President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria piling up, it is quite clear that US President Barack Obama's "red line" has long since been crossed.

Yet, near the other side of the world in Southeast Asia, another conflict continues to brew and demand American attention. The long-running maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, if allowed to degenerate into a conflict, would necessarily require US intervention, if not only to contain the conflict then most certainly to respect its commitments to regional allies. However, as the Syrian civil war has demonstrated, an American war-weary public may not be so eager to find itself embroiled in another foreign dispute.

First and foremost, would the US intervene militarily should war break out in the South China Sea? The White House, whether under the administration of President Obama or someone else, would be unlikely to commit resources to a conflict without public and political support. Afghanistan and Iraq have long since sapped America's appetite for foreign intervention, and will continue to influence successive administrations with regards to sending troops into battle, as shown by America's response to Libya and Syria.

Nevertheless, could the US intervene in the South China Sea if required? Given the nearby US military base in Okinawa, Japan, as well as its regional partnerships with Australia and the Philippines, the US would be well-positioned to deploy its forces to the Spratly or Paracel islands if ordered.

Lastly, should the US intervene in the event of a war? If the US hopes to play in sort of role in the region, then the answer is a decisive yes. With commitments to preserve, the US can't expect to sit out from any conflict involving its allies. Unlike Syria, in which the rebels fighting against the Assad regime are unknown in their allegiance, the primary participants in any potential South China Sea conflict are already known.

Any conflict in the region would surely pit China against those countries in opposition to Beijing's claim to South China Sea and the disputed territories. Among those who may stand against China include a long-standing American ally, the Philippines, with whom the US shares a Mutual Defense Treaty; in addition to partner states such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Even Vietnam, whose dispute with China extends beyond the Spratlys to include the Paracel Islands, will also want an American intervention.

For the US, failure to intervene would cause irreparable damage to American credibility in the region and elsewhere. The American pivot to Asia-Pacific will have proven to be an empty gesture. If not to prevent the conflict from spreading out across East Asia, which could draw in Japan and South Korea and their disputes with one another and China, the US must intervene if it wishes to remain relevant in the Asia-Pacific. However, politics and public sentiment would ultimately determine whether the US would commit any military force to a South China Sea conflict.

Taking preventative measures
Given that war is undesirable for all parties involved, including China, the question then is what can be done to prevent such outcome. What preventative measures can the United States hope for in resolving the disputes?

At the heart of the South China Sea dispute is the question of sovereignty over the sea and the islands within it. Perfectly representative of the complex nature of the conflict are the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Each has laid claim to some or all of the islands, overlapping one another. Although the US has so far refused to intervene directly in the disputes, it has lent its support towards a multilateral resolution, much to the annoyance of China.

Outside the Spratlys, other disputes include the previously mentioned Paracel Islands between Vietnam and China; and the Scarborough Shoal dispute between the Philippines and China, which saw the former withdraw from the area last year following a standoff between the two countries.

Due to the sensitivity over the question of sovereignty, the South China Sea disputes can't be resolved without first addressing this salient point. On the other hand, focusing too hard on it, as is the current case, could accelerate the path to conflict. China may not desire war, but it should not be assumed that Beijing wouldn't exercise a degree of force to achieve its goals. This being said, China understands full well that any use of force, even if limited, would serve to invite a much larger American presence in the South China Sea, which Beijing has sought to avoid. A compromise is thus required.

As an interim measure, the question of sovereignty should be set aside in acceptance of a modus vivendi, or agreement to disagree, particularly with regards to the Spratly Islands dispute given its multinational dimension. The nature of this particularly dispute will require all claimant states to work together towards finding an acceptable solution.

Joint development of resources might not be accepted by all those states involved. However, it would be a solid step forward to reducing tension in the region. Efforts to resolve this dispute through international arbitration, as is being conducted by the Philippines against China, will do little in the long run due to the difficulties inherent with international law and justice. China is far too big to be restrained by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

The US can't tell China what to do, but it can convince its partners involved in the disputes to consider an internationally-supervised joint development program. International law cannot be trusted to secure peace, even if in the short-term; whereas a multilateral solution in the form of a joint development and exploration of resources, although difficult to implement, is a probable and potentially workable solution. For those concerned states unwilling to participate, the US should make clear to them that this is not a permanent solution but a stopgap measure to prevent, or at least reduce, the possibility of hostile confrontation.

Although a modus vivendi would table the question of sovereignty, the question remains an obstacle to long-lasting peace in Asia-Pacific. Eventually, if not this generation then the next, China and the claimant states must reach a settlement on the sovereignty of those disputed territories in the South China Sea. Such an agreement to disagree, however, would at least give peace a chance and buy time to find a more permanent solution.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time professor at the University of Ottawa's Civil Law Section; and researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel)