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Who can solve the South China Sea?

Who can solve the South China Sea?

The Economist has posted an interesting short  survey of the diplomacy surrounding the South China Sea. A key question that emerges is whether international law and multilateral organizations will play any meaningful role in the resolution of competing claims.

Both the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the regional organization ASEAN are very much in the mix.  UNCLOS envisions a role in mediating disputes, but whether the treaty structure will serve as anything more than a forum for advancing contradictory claims is not clear. For its part, the ASEAN states have tried to construct a united front in negotiations with China, which Beijing often tries to pick apart:

China and ASEAN…reached a common “Declaration on Conduct” (DoC) in 2002 in an attempt to minimise the risk of conflict. But efforts to turn it into a formal and binding code have got nowhere, partly because of China’s anger at ASEAN’s attempts to develop a common approach. 

China argues that ASEAN has no role in territorial issues, and insists on negotiating with the other claimants bilaterally. ASEAN sees this as an effort to pick off its members one by one. It argues that its own charter forces members to consult, as they do before each working group on the code of conduct (the next one is due in March). 

Optimists point out that, distant though any settlement seems to be, at least the DoC has helped keep tensions down. Indeed, since 1988, when China and Vietnam clashed near the Spratlys, there have been no armed flare-ups. Tension rose in 1995, when China was found to have built on Mischief Reef, claimed by the Philippines. Fishermen are sometimes locked up for encroaching in another country’s claim. But the risk of escalation into conflict has seemed limited.

There’s a huge amount at stake, not just for the peace and stability of the region but also for the trajectory of global governance. Asia’s leading hotspot is emerging as an important test case for the effectiveness of multilateral processes.

The region’s recent history doesn’t generate optimism. International institution-building thrived in Europe after the Second World War but has been sluggish in much of Asia. Robert Kaplan recently characterized the region as one still dominated by "ferociously guarded sovereignty."  The difference between multilateralism in Europe and Asia has intrigued leading scholars. Writing in 2005, Francis Fukuyama described the difference this way:

Europe has the EU and NATO, as well as groups such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe. Asia’s only counterparts are ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum on security matters, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC)-all of which are far weaker organizations. ASEAN does not include China or the other major players in Northeast Asia, and APEC is no more than a consultative body. Asian security is ensured not by multilateral treaties, but by a series of bilateral relation ships centering on Washington.

Since he wrote that, several Asian leaders have proclaimed a new embrace of multilateralism, and there’s some evidence for it. In 2005, the East Asia Summit met for the first time and has become a fixture of regional diplomacy.  ASEAN itself  is full of ambition and is now trying its hand at resolving the dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. And South Korea threw itself wholeheartedly into its recent role as host of the G-20.

But the South China Sea is a particularly hard test that implicates the core national security and economic interests of leading regional players. If multilateral institutions can be relevant there, they can be relevant almost anywhere. But if they can’t, that failure might reverberate well beyond the region. With Europe receding, how Asia seeks to resolve its disputes will say a lot about how the rest of the world does.