Recommendations from the CSIS South China Sea Conference
June 13, 2013
The CSIS Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies hosted its third annual conference on the South China Sea disputes on June 5-6. This year’s event was titled “Managing Tensions in the South China Sea.” During five expert panels and a keynote speech by the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Joe Yun, recommendations were tabled to this end. What follows are a few of the most salient and frequently raised.
Ratify the Law of the Sea
This is well-trod ground. The need for the United States to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) becomes more pressing each year. Nearly every relevant stakeholder supports joining the treaty. When then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry held hearings on the treaty last year, this was crystal clear.
Representatives from the military testified that the treaty would support U.S. national security interests, protect U.S. vessels at sea, expand U.S. sovereignty claims, especially in the Arctic, and ensure that the United States holds a seat at the table when the rules governing the world’s oceans are made. They were joined by representatives from the shipping, telecommunications, and oil and gas industries. UNCLOS is a rarity in today’s political atmosphere: it draws support from industrialists and environmentalists, generals and diplomats, and sober-minded Democrats and Republicans.
Unless the United States joins the treaty, U.S. calls for management and eventual resolution of the South China Sea disputes according to international law ring hollow. China scoffs at the hypocrisy in such statements, and, even to regional partners, Washington’s calls to respect international law amount to a prescription of “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Ditch the ambiguity
A prevalent theme during the conference was the need for all the South China Sea disputants to clarify just what it is they are claiming. This is a frequent refrain about China’s and Taiwan’s ambiguous 9-dash-line claim. As expected, the Chinese participants at the conference offered no clarity on the subject. Disappointingly, the Taiwanese participant did not either.
But China and Taiwan are not the only claimants being ambiguous. None of the Southeast Asian claimants have fully declared what it is they are claiming. The Philippines received plaudits for bringing its domestic legislation into line with UNCLOS in 2009. But Manila has yet to declare its extended continental shelf or which of the Spratlys it considers islands and which rocks.
Hanoi, meanwhile, has not redrawn its territorial baselines, which in southern Vietnam violate the rules of UNCLOS. Nor has it declared all of its continental shelf or clarified the status of features in the Paracels and Spratlys.
Malaysia has not officially issued territorial baselines or the remainder of its continental shelf, nor has it clarified the status of the Spratlys it claims. And Brunei has yet to outline its extended continental shelf, despite having declared in 2009 its intention to do so.
Without clarification, it is impossible to define what waters are actually in dispute. And without that definition, agreeing on areas of joint development or joint conservation is a tall order. It also means that the Southeast Asians are squandering an opportunity to seize the legal and moral high ground and place the onus on Beijing to bring its claims into accord with UNCLOS or place itself firmly outside the bounds of international law.
Pursue reasonable joint development
The call to jointly develop disputed resources in the South China Sea as a means of managing the disputes is not a new idea. The last major multilateral effort to do so, the 2005 China-Philippines-Vietnam Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking, was a resounding failure. But the notion is gaining increasing popularity, with a recent call to do so by Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and repeated statements of interest from the Philippines’ Philex Petroleum Corp.
One obstacle is the failure of claimants to agree on what areas are actually disputed and therefore ripe for joint development. This year’s conference sparked a debate on whether clarification is really necessary for joint development, but arguments to the contrary were greeted with skepticism. What is clear is that the pursuit of joint development must be reasonable.
Discussion of joint development of oil and gas as a tool to manage tensions in the Paracel and Spratly groups is itself a pipedream. Surveys by the U.S. Geological Survey have made it clear that there are little or no commercially viable hydrocarbons beneath those features. This was made even more explicit by the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s report on the topic earlier this year. If oil and gas resources are to be jointly developed, whether bilaterally or multilaterally, the potential areas to do so are limited.
More promising would be pursuit of joint development and joint conservation of fisheries in the South China Sea. Run-ins between maritime surveillance vessels and fishermen account for the vast majority of violent incidents in the area. Pursuing a multilateral framework to conserve fish populations in the South China Sea offers a vehicle to help tamp down tensions and could be less politically sensitive than oil and gas development. It would also remove a serious bone of contention between Beijing and its southern neighbors: China’s unilateral fishing ban for areas of the sea above the 12th parallel.
The Southeast Asians have taken baby steps toward this goal with the Southeast Asia Fisheries Development Center. The center focuses on research and reporting catches in the hopes of better monitoring shrinking fisheries, and its reporting requirements are voluntary, resulting in very uneven compliance. It is open to accession by outside powers, though only Japan has joined. Claimants should consider inviting Chinese participation in the center and strengthening its mandate. If that vehicle proves unsuited to the task, claimants could pursue an alternative framework under the ASEAN umbrella.
An important lesson that ran through the conference was the need for the United States to stay involved but recognize its limits. Ratifying UNCLOS would do the most to advance Washington’s cause in the South China Sea. In the case of the other two recommendations raised above, there is little that the United States can do directly.
It should continue to urge states to clarify their claims in accordance with international law. The State Department has long issued opinions on and objections to other countries’ maritime claims. It should do so in this case. It should also support any joint development initiatives by claimants, especially in the case of fisheries where Washington could play a supporting role as a dialogue partner of ASEAN or a potential member of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center.
The recommendations above are only three of the suggestions raised most frequently at the CSIS South China Sea conference. They are far from exhaustive, but they tackle some of the issues at the heart of the disputes. Each of the speakers at the conference put forth their own recommendations, which can be found in the videos of their panels and in the papers they submitted.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the June 13, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)
Gregory Poling is research associate for the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary isproduced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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