“I see my sea!”: The South China Sea Dispute

Written By: Soh Iwin (20-E5)

Designed By: Sargun Kaur(20-E4)

Do you remember how a piñata works? When a person recurrently hits it with a stick and it bursts, plenty of colourful goodies will spill from within, inducing many young children to run towards it feverishly to snatch their share of goodies. When something beneficial, or something we love comes striding in our direction, it is no surprise that we would try to procure that good should we have the ability to do so. In the same light, countries around the world are going all out to brawl over a share of the South China Sea (SCS) to reap its benefits. What makes a plain sea so attractive, and how should countries peacefully put an end to this dispute?  

What’s the deal with the SCS?

Located at the heart of Southeast Asia, the South China Sea is rich in untapped oil, gas reserves and metal. It is also part of a trading route where at least a third of global ships would pass by. Having ownership over a part of this sea would mean that countries would receive a share of the 3 trillion USD of annual trade from trading in the South China Sea. Thus, it is no surprise that countries abutting the region would be interested in acquiring such lucrative economic prospects. 

Since 2012, at least 6 countries have made claims over ownership of parts of the sea, and islands near the sea, such that they could exploit the resources there. As for bigger countries like China, their voracious appetite for geopolitical dominance (over the Western Pacific region) caused them to join in the innumerable claims over ownership of the sea. In order to assert its dominance, China has aggressively chased non-Chinese vessels off the SCS. One instance was when China used its ships to prevent surveillance ships from the United States from passing through. 

In fear of losing their share of the sea, other claimant states augmented their response. Many began to build structures on islands disputed in the region, and increased the frequency of patrols in the region. Such cumulative aggression exacerbated until the extent where all the claimant states, including China, started to militarise the region. Even countries like the United States joined in the uproar due to concerns that China would jeopardize the freedom of navigation of neighboring states of the South China Sea. Consequently, China alleged that the United States aggravated tensions amongst countries in the region.

So what has been done? 

In 2002, the ASEAN states and China signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties. This Declaration aims to commit the ASEAN states and China to cooperate and discuss issues pertaining to the South China Sea such as the protection of maritime safety. It was hoped that through the discussions, the claimant states would develop mutual trust and a sense of camaraderie, eventually defusing tensions on the South China Sea dispute. However, this solution soon became futile as the claimant states became recalcitrant and regressed to militarisation and the building of structures in the region.  

Another solution that was previously adopted was a multilateral forum hosted by Indonesia to mediate conflicts in the South China Sea. This began in 1990, and was an avenue for participating countries to discuss their territorial claims and find potential solutions to them. However, the forum eventually became bootless because of its informal nature, causing the participating countries to not take the solutions proposed seriously. Moreover, the contentious nature of the issues discussed amplified the tensions between the claimant states, rendering the forums inefficacious. 

What a 17-year-old Euonian feels can be done: 

To begin with, I believe that a new mediator should be in place. To date, ASEAN has been mediating conflicts from the South China Sea dispute. However, ASEAN has always adopted a consensual approach, where each member state of the organisation has to be amenable with the solutions proposed. Essentially, all the resolutions have to cater to each member’s interests, making the passing of a resolution an uphill task as many of the claimant states are ASEAN members with conflicting interests. Moreover, the declarations under ASEAN are non-binding, engendering a lack of compliance and regard for the solutions proposed amongst claimant states. A probable mediator to solve this dispute is the Disarmament and International Security Committee (DISEC). 

DISEC fulfils the requirements that other plausible mediators such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) do not. This is because unlike the UNSC, DISEC does not bestow certain countries (especially key stakeholders of this dispute like China and the United States) with the privilege to use their veto power. In the UNSC, the usage of a country’s veto power causes a resolution to immediately fail. Additionally, DISEC is not a consensus-based council like ARF and ASEAN, thus, resolutions do not require votes from the whole council to pass. Besides, DISEC is a council under the United Nations General Assembly, which has more member states who can suggest more potential solutions for this issue.    

Another viable option is energy cooperation in the South China Sea. Since the presence of hydrocarbon resources from the sea was one of the core reasons why claimant states started to vie for a share of the sea, claimant states could cooperate on finding the most cost-effective solution to extract hydrocarbons from the region to obtain energy. After which, they can split the hydrocarbon resources evenly. This solves the issue of an energy shortage in many countries, which kindled a cumulative demand for hydrocarbons and a share of the South China Sea region. An instance of a successful energy cooperation between claimant states is one between the Philippines and China. In 2018, both countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation on Oil and Gas Development, where they cooperated on gas development in the region.

Given the contentious nature of this issue where successful solutions have to cater the interests of all the claimant states, it is hoped that a feasible solution will soon be proposed to end the yearslong deep conflict in the region. However, realistically speaking, it will be an uphill struggle to defuse tensions in the region, for more countries may join in the claims for a share of the sea. As for Singaporean youths, who serve as potential future leaders of Singapore, this issue is pertinent as it concerns ASEAN member states, and Singapore’s ties with these countries. Maintaining good relations will aid Singapore’s prospering economic growth.     

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