The Buzz

The South China Sea Crisis: Impossible to Solve?

Seated across the table, China’s representative railed against the Americans for a litany of offences. The Vietnamese, Philippines, and Indonesian representatives looked on, their thoughts obscured by a mix of smirks and smiles. This wasn’t, however, a meeting at this month’s ASEAN Regional Forum in Myanmar. Rather, it was a South China Sea simulation at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.

Divided into groups, attendees—a mix of Asia hands and novices—represented South China Sea claimants, along with the United States and not-quite-claimant Indonesia. Participants strove to hammer out a joint communiqué encompassing the parties’ varied interests while absorbing conflict resolution and negotiating skills. Complicating the matter, the talks were set against the scenario-injected backdrop of the Chinese construction of an artificial island in Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Although I flatter myself as educated in the basics of the region’s maritime disputes, the evening still proved educational. Readers might be interested in five distilled rules:

1. Chinese plays to Asian solidarity ring hollow

Assigned the role of a proud representative of Vietnam, I sought to halt construction of China’s artificial island and secure assurances against future infringement of our national sovereignty under the recognized principles of international law. That was a non-starter for the Chinese negotiating team. However, they did attempt to buy me off through vague promises of infrastructure investment before launching into a lecture on the U.S. In their view, Americans were destabilizing the region, were themselves unable to provide stability from half a world away, didn’t believe in international law, were interested only in a new breed of colonialism, and should acquiesce to a sphere of influence similar to their own dominance of the Caribbean.

I’ve witnessed this attempt at building an exclusive Asian rapport at other forums. Then, as in this instance, it was undermined by the accompanying mix of veiled threats and seeming indifference towards the neighbors’ real concerns. My rebuttals to China’s points—that its investments often led to little local hiring and spawned resentment, and that Vietnam cared less whether a nation signed UNCLOS than if it followed the principles therein (i.e. not parking an oil rig in someone else’s EEZ, for example)—received sympathetic concurrence from other claimant states.

2. Wild cards are unlikely to change the situation

In the run-up to the exercise I asked colleagues to suggest "wild cards" that could be played to shake-up the negotiations. Unfortunately many of those turned out to be outside my bounds as a country representative (and I’ve covered them in a CIMSEC post here).

In the event, it was revealed that the Indonesian moderator had been meeting and potentially dealing with China on the sidelines of the talks. Yet that did little to alter the negotiations. Similarly, I sought out "win-win" proposals, with a bid for joint economic development deals, as in the Gulf of Tonkinafter a freeze on new construction, claims, and resource exploitation—essentially the elusive ASEAN Code of Conduct and a reflection of Vietnam’s real position. At the same time, I noted that, if the United States was having difficulty maintaining its vessels in the region, the deep-water port of Cam Ranh Bay could be refurbished for a renewed American presence. Unfortunately, the joint-development proposal was rebuffed by China, as most were in the course of negotiations. Rule four explains why those wild cards and proposals failed to change the calculus.

3. Conflict transformation doesn’t always work

Indonesia tried to tap into "conflict transformation" to propose parts of the disputed waters be made ecological or resort preserves. I suggested bringing in Australia and New Zealand as disinterested third parties to oversee a fishing-rights management scheme preserving stocks until a final resolution on the dispute was made. Those ideas, and the desire for our communiqué to contain language affirming regional commitment to the peaceful settling of disputes under the principles of international law, were all scuttled in turn.

4. China has little to lose from torpedoing negotiations