Stirring up the South China Sea (II): Regional Responses
24 Jul 2012
The long-simmering South China Sea dispute is doomed to escalate if the countries contesting its waters fail to take steps to reduce tensions.
Stirring up the South China Sea (II): Regional Responses, Crisis Group’s latest report, is the second in a series on the South China Sea dispute. This report examines the factors driving South East Asian states to behave more assertively and their attempts to increase leverage against China by bringing in the U.S. at a time when energy, fishing and strategic interests intensify tensions in the region. A hardening of positions on all sides is reducing the chance of a meaningful code of conduct being signed and making maritime clashes more likely. Claimants should take concrete steps to end the impasse and de-escalate the numerous incidents in disputed waters, like the China-Philippines standoff in Scarborough Shoal last spring.
The extent and vagueness of China’s claims to the South China Sea, along with its assertive approach, have rattled other claimants. But Beijing is not alone in stoking tensions. South East Asian claimants, with Vietnam and the Philippines in the forefront, are now more forcefully defending their claims – and enlisting outside players – with considerable energy. As the battle for hydrocarbon reserves and fishing grounds intensifies, claimants are expanding their military and law enforcement capabilities, raising the risk of maritime skirmishes.
“The failure of the recent ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) foreign ministers’ meeting to reduce tensions and issue a joint statement shows how deeply South East Asian nations have been divided by China’s growing dominance”, says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Crisis Group’s North East Asia Project Director and China Adviser. “Lacking a strong ASEAN position, claimant countries are seeking security ties with the U.S., which Beijing is strongly opposing”.
Further complicating matters, claimants are pursuing divergent resolution mechanisms. Beijing insists on resolving the disputes bilaterally, while South East Asian countries want to involve the U.S., ASEAN and other regional powers to increase their leverage against China. All this has resulted in deadlock and has narrowed the options for resolution of the disputes.
“As long as ASEAN fails to produce a cohesive South China Sea policy, a binding set of rules on the handling of disputed claims cannot be enforced”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group’s Acting Asia Program Director. “Without a consensus on resolution mechanisms, tensions in the South China Sea can easily spill over into armed conflict”.