The Crisis in the South China Sea

For more than a month, the Scarborough Shoal, perhaps a good place to fish but not much more, has been the site of a tense and increasingly dangerous standoff between the Philippines and China. It has now begun to snowball, with hints of economic retaliation from China and rallies in Manila, the latest today in front of the Chinese Embassy, which drew an estimated 1,000 people.

Beijing is suspending some tourism to the Philippines and stiffening inspections on Philippine fruit such as bananas, of which China is the single largest buyer. There are very real fears that this confrontation could lead to war. Even if the initial belligerents are the Philippines and China, such a conflict would easily spiral out of control and consume the entire region, particularly if the Philippines calls in the United States given its multilateral defense treaty.

If not for the gravity of the situation and the severity of the consequences, it would seem almost comical that a war could be sparked over a series of rocks and reefs of relative unimportance. In and of itself the Scarborough Shoal is nothing. However, when taken into the context of the South China Sea disputes, the outcome of this confrontation—a potential flashpoint of these disputes— means everything.

War and Peace

There exist two outcomes regarding the Scarborough Shoal and South China Sea disputes: the first and perhaps most distressing would be a war between China and the Philippines, which would as a consequence pull its neighbors into an undesirable conflict, The second and most optimistic scenario would be a diplomatic resolution among claimant states resolve the disputes peacefully and permanently.

In the event of war, the Philippines would easily be outmatched by China, economically and militarily. The United States could find itself dragged into a conflict it has no desire to partake of. Depending on the scope of a China-Philippine war, Southeast Asian nations might also find themselves picking sides, drawn into an unnecessary fight. Losses would undoubtedly be heavy on all sides, and the future economic prosperity of Southeast Asia would suffer greatly. All of this ignores the involvement of North Korea, an ally of China, and any potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula as a result.

In the event of a war, however, China might end up suffering the most. As with any military in the world, it requires fuel to fight—literally. Without fuel for its trucks, tanks, and ships, China’s military and its citizens at home would find it difficult to sustain a war. In this case, China’s Achilles heel is the Strait of Malacca, the primary shipping channel linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

If cut off, China would no longer have access to its energy supplies from the Middle East, effectively neutralizing any hope of sustained military operations. All that is required for this to occur is for the US to deploy its warships to Singapore and the war would come to a speedy end. Knowing this, there is some hope that China’s leaders would refrain going to war, for the cost would certainly outweigh the benefit.

Diplomacy rather than force would be the ideal course of action to resolve the standoff, and hopefully the South China Sea disputes as well. Much like the Cuban Missile crisis of , one would hope that, beyond the beating of war drums and threats of annihilation, the leaders of the Philippines and China are working quietly and quickly to stop this confrontation from going “hot.” That a diplomatic resolution would succeed, however, is at present overly optimistic; and if history is any indication, it seems there will be no shortage of talk with little in the way of productive action taken.

Indonesia: potential mediator

If the South China Sea can be pacified, and if the parties involved are incapable of resolving the disputes, there requires a third party acceptable to all claimant states to step in. Indonesia presents itself as the less objectionable mediator to bring competing claimants together. Given the divergent interests of all parties involved, finding a mediator, never mind a peaceful resolution, to the disputes will prove difficult.

It is unlikely that the United States would play a role, if any, given China’s insistence to not internationalize the issue, and its misgivings of any American presence in the region. It is also therefore unlikely that the United Nations will be able to assist for the same reasons. As such, a third party may not be entirely objective and necessarily impartial, and therefore not a “true” third party. Nevertheless, its word must carry weight, and it must been seen to be impartial enough by claimant states. Presently, Indonesia offers the best chance to play any mediating role should the opportunity arise.

Indonesia is the largest country in Southeast Asia by economy, area, and population. It is a member of the G-20 economies, a supporter of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and former host country of ASEAN summits. Indonesia understands the responsibilities of leadership and has, through hosting various regional summits, demonstrated its potential in international relations.

Most importantly, however, Indonesia has remained somewhat above the fray in the South China Sea disputes. It has no stake in the Scarborough Shoal confrontation and the hotly contested Spratly Islands disputes, and so may be seen to be more welcoming and impartial. An economic partner to China and the United States, Indonesia presents itself to be a more palatable third party mediator than any other regional state.

Middle ground: Joint development

Should Indonesia receive and accept the job of mediator, Jakarta must then seek an equally palatable solution to an otherwise unpalatable situation. As claimant states in the South China Sea disputes have been unwilling to cede ground (and the potential riches associated), perhaps it is necessary that all parties involved abandon claims to sovereignty and jointly explore resources in the region.

Such a proposal would not be readily met by all parties involved. However, it may serve to diffuse hostilities long enough for all parties to seek a more agreeable resolution. Nevertheless, Indonesia would be ideally placed to suggest such a delicate (and perhaps) controversial proposal given its distance from the matter at hand. Beyond the respective economic exclusive zone of countries, joint development of resources in contested waters could prove to be a win-win scenario for all parties. A multilateral approach to the disputes would not only clarify and diffuse the matter of sovereignty, but also help share in the natural resources to be discovered.

The need for peace

However and whatever the outcome, what is certain is that war in the South China Sea would benefit no one. There will be losers, and the biggest loser will be Asia-Pacific as a whole. China, too, has much to lose and little to gain, especially if a war should be started over the Scarborough Shoal.

Beating the drums of war may serve to appease nationalistic elements, but it will achieve little in the long term. If only to live and fight another day, the Philippines and China would do well to avoid initiating any kind of conflict. Consequences of such an action seem hardly worthwhile over a series of small rocks and reefs of little to no importance. Ultimately, at present, it seems this cost-benefit calculation may prevent the outbreak of war; however, one cannot sit by and wait for both sides to retreat. The desire to save face by both sides will prevent such an outcome from taking place.

It is sometimes said that this century will belong to the Asia Pacific, but it will not be if the region finds itself embroiled in a war. Presently, Southeast Asian countries have experienced rapid economic growth, if only because their previous state was less than prosperous. Still, upward growth of any kind is always welcomed, but a war would only serve to divert much needed resources away from nation-building endeavors.

If there is to be a war then it should be fought on the field of diplomacy instead of the field of battle, however hopeful and unrealistic. The undeniable truth is that any war will yield short term gains at the cost of long term suffering.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese-Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.)