Asia should work together to settle sea disputes

Asia should work together to settle sea disputes
An aerial view shows the Pagasa Island.

So far there is no group of nations with a unified enough position to force Beijing to negotiate

By Humphrey Hawksley

Published: Mon 15 Feb 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 16 Feb 2016, 1:00 AM

Having moved at a snail's pace for years, the international dispute over control of the South China Sea is reaching a new stage. The United States military is openly challenging China's claim of some 90 per cent of this 3.5 million square kilometer global trade route.
Both governments have warned of the risk of miscalculation, creating a specter of South East Asia returning to its role of half a century ago when it was combative arena for super-power rivalry.
The unpredictability of the American presidential election now heightens the risk because inevitably it will come with ramped-up anti-China campaign rhetoric. This begs the question as to whether it would be better for the East Asian region to sort out the dispute itself and ask the United States to step back.
Opposition to that concept within the United States itself comes from the criticism and perceived failure of President Barack Obama's non-interventionist brand of foreign policy. But the testing ground for this has been in the Middle East where neither intervention nor holding back has worked well.
East Asia is very different. Having picked itself up from many wars over the past century, it has built world-class economies with strong institutions. The region has shown how trade can be used to dampen political tensions, and how dictatorships can transition peacefully to varying degrees of democracy. It has an enviable track record of prioritising trade and the future over war and historical grievances and has earned a reputation for brave ideas - from Japan's post-war recovery to the development of the Singaporean city-state to the economic giant that China has become.
This region now has a chance to shift away from the American security umbrella and mentorship that has helped it get this far and show that complex, seemingly intractable problems can be solved in-house.
It has made a start. Japan has forged stronger alliances with India and Australia and is taking a lead to balance China's economic muscle flexing through the region in the past decade.
Japan has also strengthened strategic partnerships with Indonesia and Malaysia and is helping the Philippines and Vietnam - nations openly confronting China over the South China Sea - with intelligence sharing and building up their maritime patrol capability.
India, too, joined with Japan to produce a joint statement from two of Asia's biggest hitters warning against China's "expansionist policies" in the region. Japan and South Korea agreed to end the contentious dispute over Second World War sex slaves, enabling a move toward a strategic alliance that would impact the parallel dispute in the East China Sea over sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
All this is useful, but it may not end up doing what needs to be done.
So far there is no group of nations with a unified enough position to force Beijing to negotiate. China is refusing outright to join any multilateral forum to find a settlement and continues to reclaim land and build strategic outposts on reefs and atolls, including a 3,000-meter-long runway on the Spratly Islands' Fiery Cross reef.
There is no evidence that a US Navy carrier group will settle this dispute. Indeed, the challenge might make it worse, and there are signs that China is beginning to listen.
Entering office in 2012, China's President Xi Jinping began by deepening the rift with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. He angered Vietnam by bringing an oil drilling rig into its waters and he tried to subdue the Philippines with an economic boycott as well as making a confrontational show of force along the Line of Control with India.
Now, facing multiple and simultaneous disputes with its neighbours, China appears to be cooling off. On both the maritime sovereignty issues, Beijing stands isolated. In the long term, despite economic and military power, it will have to get on with neighbours who are increasingly united and bold.
There is enough common ground within East Asia to create solid multilateral alliances that, while challenging Beijing, could specifically search for a settlement allowing compromise without loss of Chinese face. The stronger the unified front, the more China must listen.
The blunt instrument of American military power on the other hand might succeed in deterring China's excesses, but also risks wounding its dignity and taking control away from the governments of the region.
A deal struck between Washington and Beijing could trample on East Asia's more nuanced interests that might be forgotten amid horse-trading on a basket of global issues.
It is far better for settlement to be reached within the region than be imported from Washington.

Humphrey Hawksley is a correspondent for the BBC. © 2016 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

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