The United States Institute of Peace has convened a series of seven study group meetings since March 1995 on managing potential territorial conflicts in the South China Sea. These meetings were held as part of an ongoing series of activities on potential conflicts in Asia and implications for U.S. policy. Senior experts and grantees of the Institute researching the issue were invited to present their latest findings on aspects of the South China Sea dispute to a group of forty to fifty specialists from the Washington, D.C. area.

Key Points

  • The disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea remain a dangerous source of potential conflict in the absence of preventive measures to forestall a military or political crisis. Three periods of heightened tension over the Spratly Islands within the past ten years offer a clear warning sign of the risk of future confrontation if the core issues remain unresolved. It is in the interest of all the claimants to actively seek solutions to the disputes through political negotiations to avoid future military conflict. All the claimants have an interest in participating in a preventive diplomatic approach to the South China Sea--one that takes into account the interests of all claimants--to minimize the risk of future crises, rather than resorting to a more costly approach of military action.
  • It may still be possible to find a political, "win-win" settlement. If the political will can be generated to reach a negotiated settlement, there is a window of opportunity to pursue progress. Military conflict would threaten the interests of all parties to the dispute, since the political costs of military escalation would be higher than any single party is currently willing to bear. No country in the region currently possesses the military capabilities needed to assert and maintain its claims, relations in the region are generally cooperative, and no claimant has yet discovered commercially viable quantities of oil or natural gas. In time, however, all these factors are subject to change, especially as China, and perhaps other claimants, acquire the military strength to impose their claims by threat or use of military force.
  • Given the nature and complexity of the various legal claims to the islands and concerns about the regional balance of power, no purely legal process is likely to be sufficient to achieve a settlement, although the establishment and acceptance of international legal precedents, such as those contained in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, may provide a necessary foundation for the negotiation of key issues. For instance, Beijing's ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention can be seen as a major step toward achieving a negotiated settlement in the Spratly Islands dispute, although the National People's Congress simultaneously promulgated baselines surrounding the Paracel Islands that defy conventional international legal interpretations. In the final analysis, a political settlement is the only realistic means of resolving these complex issues.
  • The level of attention to the conflicting claims in the South China Sea has increased in proportion to estimates of the area's resource development potential. Little attention had been given to sovereignty in the South China Sea until the 1960s and 1970s, when international oil companies began prospecting in the region. As speculation about possible hydrocarbon resources has grown, the claimants have scrambled to reinforce their claims, leading to heightened tensions and periodic conflict. Although hydrocarbon potential has been the main focus of the disputants until now, fisheries and other marine resources, navigational safety, and strategic and environmental concerns may become equally critical issues in the future.
  • A range of preventive diplomatic mechanisms and approaches might be used to dampen tensions, forestall the outbreak of conflict in the South China Sea, and provide the basis for a political settlement. The Indonesian-hosted Workshops on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea have provided important opportunities for cooperative action on technical issues, but it has thus far not been possible to generate any meaningful discussion in these meetings on the critical sovereignty issue. Nevertheless, an effort might be made to upgrade these informal meetings to address such questions as sovereignty or mechanisms for joint exploration of resources.
  • A variety of supplementary approaches to the Indonesian workshops could be considered. For example, creation of an Eminent Persons Group, possibly composed of high-level representatives from the nonclaimant members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has been suggested to jump-start political talks and create new political channels for negotiation. Another possibility is mediation by an ad hoc tribunal or nonofficial third party if the claimants themselves are willing to accept such a negotiation process to facilitate resolution of territorial claims. If the parties can agree to an equitable approach by which to shelve sovereignty issues, it may be possible to create joint multilateral development authority to exploit resources in the disputed area. Alternatively, recent developments suggest that itmight be possible to settle bilateral claims in the South China Sea area before tackling areas in which multiple claims overlap. The critical question, however, is whether the disputants can find the political will to come to a lasting negotiated settlement.
  • It is in the U.S. interest to maintain a neutral position on the legal merits of the various territorial claims, insisting that the claimants peacefully resolve conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea consistent with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Without becoming a party to the dispute, Washington might be able to quietly encourage diplomatic efforts among the claimants themselves to find a lasting, peaceful resolution to the outstanding South China Sea issues.
  • Given the troubled nature of U.S.-Chinese relations at present, a leading and public U.S. role in trying to resolve the dispute over the Spratly Islands is likely to be counterproductive because China may have less incentive to be forthcoming if the issue seems to become "Americanized." Nevertheless, the United States has vital interests at stake in this dispute, including maintaining freedom of navigation, encouraging the consolidation of the rule of law in the management of international maritime disputes, and protecting the credibility of U.S. forces as a balancing and stabilizing presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • While maintaining neutrality on the merits of the sovereignty claims, the United States has an interest in retaining the capacity and willingness to dissuade any single claimant from imposing a solution to the dispute through force, since overt conflict or successful intimidation would have serious implications for regional security. Quiet diplomacy by the United States in support of a negotiated settlement may help the claimants generate the necessary political will to resolve the disputes through a negotiation process without drawing the United States directly into the dispute.

About the Study Group
 

The United States Institute of Peace has convened a series of seven study group meetings since March 1995 on managing potential territorial conflicts in the South China Sea. These meetings were held as part of an ongoing series of activities on potential conflicts in Asia and implications for U.S. policy. Senior experts and grantees of the Institute researching the issue were invited to present their latest findings on aspects of the South China Sea dispute to a group of forty to fifty specialists from the Washington, D.C. area.

This report, authored by Institute Program Officer Scott Snyder, draws on that series of discussions as well as proceedings from a number of conferences and meetings on the South China Sea issue that have been held during the past two years. The contents of the report do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate particular policies. For more information regarding the meeting series or this report, please contact Scott Snyder at (202) 429-3808.

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