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Negotiating peace in a contested sea

Image credit: James Vazquez (Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons)

Fish larvae are described by marine biologist John McManus as being the best driver of peace and the potential win-win solution to the ongoing South China Sea border. Known as the Spratly Islands Marine Peace Park (SIMPP), this dispute resolution approach offers a flexible solution to a complex problem by reducing geopolitical tensions and increasing cooperation amongst claimants and stakeholders.

The goal of SIMPP is to reduce resource competition and antagonistic behaviours by firstly, maintaining overall scientific and ecological integrity surrounding the Spratly Islands and secondly, through promoting regional cooperation by changing intra-regional behaviours and building a multilateral strategy that engages and incentivises a resolution process.

Yet, with the ongoing construction of artificial islands and continuing reclamation of the Spratly Archipelago, it is uncertain if the SIMPP can be constructed when international arbitration norms are ignored and there is an ever-increasing military presence in the area.

Furthermore, there are calls for US interventions to step up and reverse China’s incremental gains in the region, despite US Indo-Pacific Command claiming that China would now ‘...[be] capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US.’ Thus, an extra layer of complexity has been added to the dispute resolution process because military strategies have prevailed at a faster rate than dispute resolution approaches.

So, what would it take to implement a successful SIMPP and deescalate the dispute?

Firstly, the biggest challenge to establishing a SIMPP is generating willpower and honest intent throughout the negotiation process. Whereas countries like the Philippines and Vietnam identify the sea as a nexus between states along the South China Sea littoral, China views almost the entire sea as being part of its historical patrimony, established by the ‘nine dash line’.

Moreover, China’s interests are currently not transparent enough for other claimants and regional actors like the US to forego military strategies. Some view China’s incremental gains as being part of a long-term play to destabilise the region and gain influence to keep out the US and allied powers. Alternatively, others view China’s actions as a geopolitical grab to control oil and gas deposits, despite reports indicating energy deposits are not economically viable enough to justify China’s growing military presence. With the uncertainty in mind, the SIMPP could offer a middle ground by creating a neutral space to reinvigorate willpower and trust-building exercises based on mutual interests.

Secondly, the SIMPP could model the Antarctic Treaty – whereby sovereignty and natural resource claims are frozen for a period of time in order to promote scientific and multilateral cooperation under a more diplomatic administration.

This would include:

▪ Claimants agreeing not to assert ownership of the Spratly Islands.

▪ The inclusion of international research organizations to oversee management of the SIMPP and any related industries – marine stocks, tourism, dispute resolution etc.

▪ Funding to come from the consortium of claimants – and others that would benefit from having peace and security in the region.

Thirdly, by continuing to engage regional policymakers and using ASEAN as the champion for regional security, rather than relying on external actors or endorsing a unilateral strategy to generate order in the region. Presently, the DOC is ASEAN’s preliminary solution to building a multilateral strategy – including China – while negotiations for a South China Sea code of conduct are ongoing.

Furthermore, established treaties such as United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have been referenced as part of the dispute resolution process. However inconsistencies plague UNCLOS because even though China has ratified UNCLOS, it selectively applies laws to suit Chinese interests. In contrast the US has not ratified UNCLOS but still mostly abides by UNCLOS law. This thus highlighting the need for a regional strategy that incentivises consistent behaviour and cooperation between claimants and/or regional policy makers.

Additionally, the regional economic interests associated with the SIMPP would incentivise ASEAN leadership to reach out to China to negotiate the SIMPP. Examples of interests that would be supported by a SIMPP include tourism, commercial fishing, and the expansion of international research outposts that overtime, could outnumber military bases. The SIMPP could therefore neutralise tensions over jurisdictional disputes by creating a regional strategy that jointly manages a common resource pool within a clearly defined geopolitical space. The experience of regional economic cooperation could eventually decrease tensions and reduce the need for US intervention.

In conclusion, the offerings of the SIMPP are beneficial to the dispute resolution process on two fronts. Firstly, promoting regional cooperation by negotiating a neutral space whereby trust-building exercises can be readily applied, and mutual interests developed. Secondly, in terms of reducing competition whereby access to natural resources are solely expressed in terms of scientific value, or regional economic interests, rather than for unilateral benefits.

Collectively, these elements reinforce a regional response strategy which will be vital for future engagements and changes in intra-regional behaviours. More importantly, the creation of the SIMPP would be a step away from warmongering sentiments in a highly contested sea. However, none of this can be achieved if claimants fail to respond multilaterally.

Robyn is a recent Master of Science graduate from the United Nations University and Maastricht University, with a focus in Indian Ocean geopolitics and regional power equilibriums.

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