Best Defense

Lessons for the South China Sea From International Experience in the Arctic

The recent row between the Chinese and the U.S. navies over an unmanned underwater vehicle is a glimpse of an evolving problem, which the new administration in the White House must address.



By Cdr. Daniel Thomassen, Royal Norwegian Navy
Best Defense guest columnist

The recent row between the Chinese and the U.S. navies over an unmanned underwater vehicle is a glimpse of an evolving problem, which the new administration in the White House must address: The East and South China Sea currently constitute the primary global hotspot where major and regional powers’ vital interests and commitments clash directly.

The growing rivalries over resources and security trigger disputes about sovereignty and historical rights, which threaten regional stability as well as the freedom of the seas. When adding the complexity of an adolescent state system, entangled alliances and security commitments, as well as the questionable commitment from the balancing power of the United States, a classical Thucydides trap comes to mind. The deteriorating security environment in the area has a potential for conflict far beyond the current levels of ongoing militarization and skirmishes between fishing fleets, coastguards, and navies. A framework to manage this region must be implemented by the superpowers and supported by Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia in order to be effective.

The Arctic region has similar potential of great power rivalry, but instead offers a good example of peaceful settlements and compromise. The diminishing ice cap causes a growing emphasis on resources, international waterways, and commercial potential in the Arctic, where there are also competing claims, disputed sovereignty, and great power security interests represented. However, the framework to reach mutually beneficial compromises is in place, which helps to maintain stability and predictability. This framework is made up of the Arctic Council, adherence to international law and arbitration tribunals, bilateral and multilateral treaties, demilitarized zones, as well as the power balance between Russia and the NATO alliance. These mechanisms, institutions, and agreed principles are far more robust than comparable efforts in the Southeast Asia — such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” or the blunt Chinese dismissal of the ruling from the International Arbitration Court against the legitimacy of the Nine-Dash Line claim.

Other examples can be found in the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and the 1936 Montreux Convention. But looking towards desired end states is more important than historical claims when dealing with the issues in the East and South China Seas. And finding compromise means that there must be “give aways” between China and the United States, involving issues such as ratification of the UNCLOS, respecting the “One China Policy,” American forward basing, treaties regulating sovereignty, demilitarization and commercial rights, mutual inspection regimes like the “Open Skies,” the creation of a regional body similar to the Arctic Council, cooperation on upholding good order at sea and fishery regulations, common policy on North Korea, as well as using the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and other international tribunals as basis for bilateral negotiations. Finally, diplomacy must go hand in hand with firm, power-balancing military presence by the United States.

Maybe this point of departure even benefits from the indicated transactional policy approach of incoming President Donald Trump?

Cdr. Daniel Thomassen, Royal Norwegian Navy, alumnus U.S. Naval War College, MA international relations Salve Regina University 

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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