China and Neighbourhood

Conflict in the ‘South China Sea’: Lessons from the Dene peoples and the Arctic Conflict?

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Written by DR. JEAN-PAUL GAGNON

Monday, 26 September 2011 11:43

  • Foreword

Before we engage this enthralling subject, I should like to point out an added detail to the works cited in this paper. This is obviously not an original development, but it is a new attempt in my research. As can be seen, the evidence has been divided under third order subheadings that categorize different types of publications. This is done to explicitly detail the ‘weight’ of evidence and allow the reader to gain a greater grasp of the evidentiary bias that is present herein. A portion of this effort is to try to include ‘new media’ (such as blogs) as part of the traditional media drawn upon.

  • Introduction

south_china_seaThe dispute in the ‘South China Sea’ is, as widely known, a multistate affair.  Cook (2011), in an interview with Ian Storey, showed that tensions have been escalating in this area since around 2007 [1]. In majority, it is two sets of islands (atoll and reef chains), the Paracel’s and Spratly’s (including a number of submerged shallow islands) that are at the centre of this multinational dispute. Key players include China (the PRC mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau), Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. Notable secondary actors include the USA, ASEAN, Indonesia, Thailand, the UN, EU and Singapore.  These key players have, over the past 4 years, been escalating disputes over a number of key issues which are: a build-up of militarism and a lack of diplomacy by all except Brunei (especially in the Spratly’s); access to oil, natural gas and other minerals; access to lucrative fisheries; control over lucrative lanes of trade; defining national territorial waters versus identifying international waters; objections by China for the involvement of secondary actors in the dispute (Anonymous, 2010; Buckley, 2011); the Beijing Consensus being used against China and the Washington Consensus using war-games to flex its muscles; Taiwanese sovereignty; and overall mixed signals from each key player (the PRC, for example, expressed goodwill for the region yet also continued the development and deployment of blue water naval ships and the offloading of materiel in the Spratly’s).

There is something of a stew of growing nationalism at present (such as the Philippines renaming the ‘South China Sea’ to the ‘West Philippine Sea’: see Cheng 2011 for more). We see, in another example, Vietnam passing a conscription bill which is in many ways worrying. However, I feel that the likelihood to this dispute mounting to serious violence to be an exaggeration (an opinion that is widely shared in the extant literature). What this rise in nationalism will do, rather, is hinder regional cooperation and collective growth. Violence would do untold harm to China’s efforts for global goodwill and South-South relations (i.e. trade, research and culture swaps) which it has been building over the past 20 years. Cheng (2011) adds to this reasoning as China has restated its commitment to a non-violent resolution to the conflict (see also Anonymous, 2011). We also have to consider the diplomatic efforts that have been making inroads through the Treaty of Amity of Cooperation, the Declaration of Conduct and the ‘South China Sea’ Workshop as barriers to violence.

Overall, it comes down to what many commentators have been saying for some time: focus on diplomacy, do not play to nationalist currents at the expense of other citizenries and the ASEAN+3 region, and work on a friendly and cooperative strategy for the betterment of the region. This paper will try and provide a small prescriptive measure for realistic progress to be made in that direction.

  • Origins & Evolution

It would be a very difficult undertaking, although a greatly interesting one, to try and map the history of ‘South China Sea’ disputes between states bordering that Sea. The focus here is rather on the last ten years. What exactly happened that sparked this renewed escalation of militarism, nationalism and international belligerence? One analyst (Nordhaug, 2011), argued that part of the reason could stem from the Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan). The ROC could use this dispute to its diplomatic advantage by lining up its interests with non-PRC claimants to try to limit the PRC’s influence in the Sea. Thus, by acting-up about the PRC’s growing presence and trying to disrupt the PRC’s ‘sphere of influence’ it might make matters easier for the ROC to increase its diplomatic recognition.

Li and Li (2003) demonstrate that we should also take into consideration the famous “9 dotted line map” (I counted 13 lines) created by the PRC in 1947 [2] (see Map 1). It is reasonable to agree with non-PRC positions that argue this map to have no legal relevance. It is obviously a map designed to maximize a freshly consolidated militaristic power and looks more like a map of empire than of a socialist democracy as the PRC supposedly considers itself to be. Nevertheless, this map could serve to raise the eyebrows of several non-PRC powers in the region. Should we go further and tie in the growth of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (or PLAN) in the Sea, it is understandable why tensions have been escalating. With a map like this and the means to enforce it, counter-measures should be taken even if such a goal for the PRC would be preposterous.[3]

Arrow


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* Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2 | No. 3

** Dr. Jean-Paul Gagnon is a social and political theorist with a Ph.D. in political science. He completed his doctorate at the Queensland University of Technology under the aegis of Australia‟s prestigious Endeavour Award.

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