Can a modus vivendi be developed for the South China Sea crisis?

The South China Sea stretches from the Strait of Taiwan in the north to Singapore and the Strait of Malacca in the south, through which one-third of the world’s international trade travels. It is not an exaggeration to say that any military conflict among regional countries over disputed territory in the area, big or small, will not only be felt by them but the world at large.

At the heart of these disputes are the Spratly Islands, involving Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam; and the much smaller Paracel Islands dispute between China and Vietnam. It can be argued, however, that these disputes are driven less by territorial ambitions and are more about energy demand and economic benefits.

An analysis conducted by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that “oil consumption in developing Asian countries is expected to rise by 2.7 percent annually from about 14.8 million barrels per day (MMbbl/d) in 2004 to nearly 29.8 MMbbl/d by 2030,” with China accounting for nearly half the growth. With the South China Sea suspected of holding anywhere from 28 billion to 213 billion barrels of oil, and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, potential resources are reason enough for any country to stake their claim in the region.

Since the 1970s, claimant states have clashed over the Spratly archipelago. If they are unable to resolve the disputes peacefully, as the situation currently seems, claimant states would best be served by agreeing to disagree. A temporary condition at best — a modus vivendi — will at least preserve the status quo and perhaps provide the opportunity for de-escalation.

The South China Sea vortex

Under its nine-dash map, which claims the entire South China Sea, China is unlikely to find support among other claimant states, save for Taiwan. Moreover, given competing claims over the Spratly archipelago, all parties involved are unlikely to resolve the disputes in the near future. It is therefore appropriate that claimant states agree to disagree, if only to restore some measure of calm in the region. Barring some miraculous development, maintaining the status quo is the most probably outcome of these disputes.

Perhaps the greatest opponent to war is China, for it has little desire to saddle its burgeoning economy with an unnecessary military conflict. Above all else, war would invite the United States and international community into the South China Sea — an outcome that would prove disadvantageous for Beijing.

One of the most vocal opponents of China has been the Philippines, and for the past month the countries have been facing off over the Scarborough Shoal. This heated standoff runs the risk of sending the entire region spiraling out of control.

Under the Mutual Defense Treaty signed between Manila and Washington, an attack on either country would require the other to provide support, unnecessarily drawing in the US directly into the dispute despite China’s attempts to keep America out. Yet, what is uncertain is whether the US would be willing to go to war for the Philippines against China. Finding out whether the US will fight alongside the Philippines, however, is perhaps too much of a gamble for China.

Vietnam, however, has no defense treaty with the US. If there is the potential for war between China and another country, Vietnam has the unfortunate chance of bearing the brunt of China’s ire. There is little love lost between these historic foes. Beyond their shared history and philosophy of a single-party state, Vietnam and China have little in common, and they have engaged in war in the past.

At present, however, a war with Vietnam is no more a possibility than a war with the Philippines, for it would invite open hostility toward Beijing. There is also the question of India, whose partnership with Vietnam adds another layer of complexity.

Would India, an emerging power and rival of China, rush to the aid of Vietnam in the event of a war and risk direct confrontation with Beijing? And what of Russia, with its recent joint off-shore resource exploration agreement with Vietnam? A war in the South China Sea has the potential of becoming a vortex, sucking in any number of countries with a stake in the region.

Any conflict instigated by China might see a rush of fearful nations turning to the US for assistance, thereby pulling the West directly into the region — again, contrary to the wishes of China. To invite additional parties to the scene would dilute, if not marginalize, China’s influence and leverage in bilateral resolutions.

Crucial first steps towards peace

As the rhetoric from Manila increases, Beijing increasingly finds itself being pushed into a corner, unable to back down for fear of losing face but unwilling to start that which it has no desire to begin. Arguably more than anyone else, Beijing would like to see the South China Sea disputes resolved peacefully.

A modus vivendi is ultimately temporary, as claimant states can only agree to disagree for so long. Until such time when a resolution can be agreed upon, there will continue to be cries for aggressive action by nationalists from all sides.

Political leaders in Southeast Asia, as well as Beijing, understand the consequences of any such action; and so, it may be necessary that a compromise be reached. Yet, under the present hostile climate, how can Beijing, Hanoi or Manila possibly arrive at a consensus when their citizens cry for decisive action?

International forums such as ASEAN and the East Asian Summit (EAS) provide a safe medium through which any concerned nation can suggest a modus vivendi. Presently, for a state leader directly involved in the disputes to suggest a modus vivendi would require significant political courage — more than enough to challenge any notion that they are surrendering their nation’s interests to foreign powers. ASEAN or the EAS, however, by their internationalist natures, can provide leaders the political cover necessary for such a suggestion.

Although there are legitimate criticisms about international forums lacking the “teeth” required to enforce agreements among nations, said forums do provide a stage upon which bold ideas can be brought forth. A challenge, of course, is for all parties to arrive at a consensus on a modus vivendi and establishing an agreed-upon method of enforcing such a resolution.

An argument for a modus vivendi is that while it may not succeed in resolving the South China Sea disputes — an agreement to disagree is essentially a stalemate — it may allow for cooler heads to prevail and a re-examination of the situation.

The greatest challenge, however, is to find a state willing to step forward and declare such an agreement. China is unlikely to take charge on the issue without losing face, both at home and abroad, given its push for claiming the entire South China Sea.

Rightly or wrongly, should Beijing even declare a temporary truce, it would be seen as surrender by nationalists within its borders. The Philippines has much to gain from a modus vivendi, including using the respite to shore up its military capabilities and seek assurances of military support from the US.

However, the Philippines would be regarded as too biased and too close to the West for any suggestion to be agreed upon by China. For the same reason and more, the US would also be disqualified.

What is therefore required is a third party, someone impartial to the South China Sea disputes, whose judgments and leadership would be respected. All things considered, Indonesia, being a respected partner of both the US and China and also boasting the largest economy and population in Southeast Asia, would most closely satisfy the requirements of all parties.

More importantly, as a founding member of ASEAN and a productive host of ASEAN and international summits, Indonesia has more than once proved its international leadership and responsibilities. The subject of Indonesia putting forth a resolution on the South China Sea disputes, however, is another discussion entirely.

Ultimately, how and when these disputes conclude are in the hands of the involved parties. War benefits no one, and to prolong the disputes will achieve little. A modus vivendi is not the solution to the South China Sea disputes, but it is a necessary first step in finding the right one.

Khanh Vu Duc

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