Challenge China in the South China Sea by Democratic Example
The South China Sea dispute lacks a shared democratic thread, and China’s interpretation of its maritime boundary rejects international norms. Nonetheless, the examples of Australia, Indonesia and Timor-Leste matter because it challenges China’s fundamental argument that such disputes should be solved by the weaker party agreeing to the stronger party’s demand, rejecting the idea of just reconciliation, international arbitration or conciliation.
The bilateral negotiations forged by Timor-Leste and Indonesia worked not because Indonesia imposed a border through diktat, but because of a shared commitment to a just future. The Timor-Leste and Australian border talks highlight that stability and trust emerge not from unreasonable demands but a commitment to shared democratic principles, good-faith negotiations and a willingness to abide by internationally accepted norms, not unilateral actions.
Moreover, Timor-Leste’s initiation of UNCLOS conciliation exposes China's rejection of arbitration or mediation in the South China Sea as self-serving, without merit and destabilizing. Australia and Timor-Leste are direct proof that such conciliation works, building trust and goodwill between nations and enhancing regional stability.
The United States should capitalize on the opportunity to highlight, encourage and codify this local South Pacific and Southeast Asian experience by emphasizing the fundamental principles it represents. It should do so by supporting a Southeast Asian and South Pacific charter, which would enunciate the importance of democratic institutions, reconciliation and adherence to international mechanisms for arbitration and conciliation. Such an approach would crystallize a vision for Southeast Asia and the South Pacific grounded in shared democratic values, a commitment to regional economic development, and the acceptance of international norms.
There has been much talk in the United States over the years about a pivot to Asia; the United States must broaden that pivot by supporting and institutionalizing local democratic processes to help bring cooperation, peace and stability. It should encourage Australia and Indonesia and other democracies in the region to join together in this effort.
Francisco da Costa Guterres served as the secretary of state for security of Timor-Leste and oversaw police, immigration and conflict prevention from 2007–15. From 1999 to 2003, he was a member of the Reconciliation Team, which dealt with resistance and pro-autonomy groups. He is a board member and trustee of the Dili Institute of Technology. He has a PhD in Politics from Griffith University, Brisbane.
Kjell-Åke Nordquist is a professor in international relations with a focus on peace-building and human-rights. He teaches at the Stockholm School of Theology in Sweden. Nordquist has been working in the fields of autonomy and conflict resolution as a researcher and a practitioner. He is a member of the board of the Research Council of the Åland Islands Peace Institute and has been working with peace processes in Colombia, the Middle East and Timor-Leste.
Charles Santos served in different diplomatic and political capacities with the United Nations from 1987–96, including as political advisor of the Special Envoy to Afghanistan and deputy head and political advisor of the United Nations peace missions to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. He has been a senior executive and board of various gas and gas pipeline projects in Central Asia and Southeast Asia from 1997–2017 and has spent significant time in Timor-Leste since 2007. He was a Council on Foreign Relations term member in the late 1990s and an International Affairs Fellow at CFR in 1996–97. He has testified before Congress on political and energy issues.