South China Sea Making Space for Two Elephants

The very notion that the maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea can be resolved with a swish of the pen is almost too good to be true. And it is. But a swish of the pen is exactly how these disputes will end—a one or two-second gesture that can end the grief that has seized Southeast Asia. However, this is unlikely to happen, at least in the near future. Party lines have been drawn and everyone is digging in. Standing in one corner is China; and in the other corner we find the opposition, characterized best by the Philippines and, to an extent, Vietnam. Given that these two sides are destined to collide, all that remains to be answered is “why.”

The territorial nature of these disputes plainly suggests that this is an issue of sovereignty. What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine—an oversimplified representation, perhaps, but such is the nature of these disputes when viewed as an outsider.

The idea that China is now reclaiming lost territory is not enough, for if such is the case then why now? Why have these disputes only risen to prominence now? If the Spratlys are inherently Chinese due to their occupation many centuries ago, why not reclaim it at or near the time it was lost? The reasons may be lost to time and history, and if these disputes could be resolved through the finding of said reasons, these disputes would have long been dealt with.

Unfortunately, the reasons do not matter, for the maritime and territorial disputes are simply tangent to the greater issues at hand: cultural, economic, and military dominance as they relate to the undeniable rise of China. If the South China Sea affair is viewed in this context then perhaps we may have progress in resolving these disputes.

Waiting for the right time

Let us first address the rise of China in brief. Only recently, roughly a decade and a half ago, has China acquired the financial capital and resources necessary to project itself on the international stage. Although much of its population is still mired poverty, it has created a growing middle class that has blossomed from the prosperity generated by Beijing’s adoption of many free market economic policies. With profit, one has the ability to invest, and China has chosen to invest in revitalizing its role in Asia and the world at large.

Knowing this, China’s sudden increased interest in the South China Sea begins to make a little bit more sense. It is not because China had no interest several decades ago, only that it did not possess the means to advance its position. Had Beijing gone ahead and tried to claim the South China Sea before it was adequately prepared, a loss would likely have spelled the end for future claims, the matter having been settled with then and there. Now, however, Beijing has or is capable of acquiring the means necessary to pursue its goals.

China has thrown down the gauntlet. It has laid claim to islands and large swaths of water in the South China Sea, challenging counterclaimants to face off against an economic and military giant. The use of force is not necessary as its size and economic influence is enough to persuade some opposition parties to negotiate—this bilateral negotiation being advantageous to the much larger China.

However, is such a challenge necessary? Or is there another way in which the greater issue of Chinese prominence can be addressed without upsetting the balance of power?

Being obstinate

It is more or less clear that Chinese foreign policy in the South China Sea is to reduce, if not neutralize, American influence. Simply put, Asia-Pacific isn’t big enough to accommodate an historic superpower and a rising regional power. For China, the territorial conflict is less physical than it is metaphysical. As such, one must ask if these maritime and territorial disputes are even necessary in the first place. China’s rise does not hinge on the fate of several islands or a sea used by its neighbors and the international community. Rather, China’s rise—as well as peace and prosperity in the region—hinges on its acceptance by the world at large.

For us to resolve this issue, we need to re-address the primary actors on stage. There is still China, and opposite to it is the United States. According to Beijing, with China’s rise, there is simply no room for the US in the Pacific unless businesses and factories are involved. Otherwise, it is Beijing’s hope that the South China Sea falls under the influence of China, or at least be rid of an American presence. This, of course, is unlikely to occur, given past, present, and future American investment in the region.

So what are we left with if China continues to push and American refuses to keel over? The answer: exactly what we now have in the South China Sea.

A necessity to dream big

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the only solution to this affair is having our two actors locked together in the same room, their release conditional upon a permanent agreement where the peace and prosperity of the South China Sea and Asia-Pacific as a whole is ensured. Let us be honest and not be deceived into thinking that any agreement will benefit all claimants involved in the maritime and territorial disputes; however, any arrangement met out by China and the US will, in the long term, prove beneficial to the region.

It is necessary for someone, either in Beijing or Washington, DC, to step forward and say, “Enough is enough. It’s time to stop playing games and time to start dealing.” It is necessary for someone, be they American or Chinese, to cast aside differences and work towards finding a realistic, permanent resolution. Of course, what resolution would this be? Obviously said resolution will not deal with the South China Sea but the future between China and America. The greatest endeavors in human history have never been heralded by the meek but by visionaries. These individuals seized the moment, knowing such moments were rare and fleeting.

Given the undeniable fact that these two countries are on a collision course with destiny, it is time for the leaders of tomorrow to step forward. It is time for these leaders to seize this fleeting moment to secure peace for our children.

Periods of uncertainty and despair have at times revealed the strength and courage of the human spirit. As we have seen during the horrors of the Second World War or the frights of the Cold War, our humanity will survive. And now, during these difficult periods, it is time we remember America and China had once been allied against a common foe, Imperial Japan. For the benefit of both countries, America and China had worked together towards liberty, peace, and prosperity. Today, as it was then, it is time to establish the bonds of brotherhood between America and China, so that we may pass on to future generations a world that is a little bit safer and a little bit brighter.

(Khanh VU DUC is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law. He serves as President of the VDK Law Office and the VDK Investment Consulting Group.)