Mitigating an Armed Conflict in South China Sea

In the first part, we have discussed the contingencies and implications that can occur in South China Sea with respect to the United States of America. The territorial claims...
Source: New York Times

In the first part, we have discussed the contingencies and implications that can occur in South China Sea with respect to the United States of America. The territorial claims in the sea are mainly connected with two islands viz. Spratly and Paracel and the distribution of maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin. Since these islands are located in South China Sea, they are bisected by vital shipping lanes that connect Asia with Europe and Middle East.

Now, Beijing has started developing these two artificial islands and started enhancing the military capabilities on reefs which has sent alarming waves to all the concerned nations. Satellite imagery of the islands show that it has developed a large runway on Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands and a similar runway has already been developed at Fiery Cross Reef. It seems like the world will see an enlarged footprint of China’s military on these islands and submerge the territorial claims of the weaker sections if the Chinese activities continues.

Source: New York Times

Source: New York Times

Is there some way where the conflict-like situation can be averted in South China Sea? We already know that the US will be put in the forefront in the situation of an armed struggle.

Preventive Measures

  1. Strengthen US-Chinese Bilateral Relationship

Extended cooperation in navy and operational safety measures can significantly help to diminish the peril of any untoward incident between aircraft and ships. Although the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (1988) was created to lay down “rules of the road” at sea just like the US-Soviet incidents at Sea, but it wasn’t successful. The governments of both the countries could adopt the following options –

  • Proper communication mechanisms should be the way forward to mollify tensions in crisis-like situations. Though military and political hotlines are already set up for the same but the chances are slim that they will be utilized by the Chinese in times of crisis.
  • Create another hotline at the operational level with respect to maritime emergency which is backed by a political agreement.
  • Joint naval exercises should be conducted at regular intervals so that the capability of both the countries in humanitarian assistance and counter-piracy be enhanced.
  1. Enhance Regional Actors’ Capabilities

The smaller countries’ like Vietnam and Philippines should take necessary steps to advance their military capabilities either taking the help from USA or individually. This will help in defending the territorial claims of the Philippines’ military and dissuade China from taking any forceful action. Also, the US could help Vietnam enhance the maritime capabilities by making the military capable of pursuing an area-denial and anti-access strategy.

  1. Settlement over Dispute
  • Given the threats hovering over the South China Sea, the US could request either the International Tribunal for Law of the Sea or the International Court of Justice to intervene or call upon a mediator for settling the dispute.
  • As suggested by the authors of “Sharing the Resources of the South China Sea”, the claimant countries can collectively manage the resources available on the islands, airspace and the territorial seas.
  • Another option suggested by Peter Dutton is that the sovereignty can be given to China but permit other countries as well to benefit from the resources as entailed in the Treaty of Spitsbergen in 1920.
  1. Encourage Regional Risk-Prevention Measures

As there are already several risk mitigating mechanisms that can help promote operational safety but are barely utilized. To list a few –

  • In 2002, China and the ASEAN agreed to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea, but neither of the sides have adhered to any of its provisions nor implemented the suggested proposals. In fact, this year China has sternly said that it want no mention of South China Sea during the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur.
  • The US, China and ASEAN are the members of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (1988) where the regional naval leaders discuss maritime security.
  • Other mechanisms set up for resolving the issue are – International Civil Aviation Organization’s rules of the air and International Maritime Organization’s Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).
  • Regional navies could co-operate in activities like sea environment protection, search and rescue activities, damage caused by natural calamities and scientific research at sea.
  • New dialogue mechanisms like South China Sea Coast Guard Forum can be created on the lines of North Pacific Coast Guard Forum where information sharing can be done.
  1. Advocate Multilateral Cooperation/Joint Development

Resource co-operation could be an option that could be utilized by the claimants of South China Sea such as –

  • Joint development of petroleum resources between China and Vietnam.
  • Energy security and access to hydrocarbon resources could reduce joint development of petroleum resources.
  • The declining fish stocks in South China Sea is a concern but if a joint fisheries committee is established and the matter can be looked together.

Mitigating Options

If the aforementioned preventive measures fallout, there are other options available to mitigate the potential negative effects including the following –

  1. Paving Way for Defusing US-China Incident

Historically, both the United States and China go to great lengths to prevent military conflict, but it is ideal if pre-crisis steps are taken at the right time so that the harmful consequences of confrontation can be mitigated. If communication mechanisms are right along with political agreements, the war-like situation can be stopped from taking shape. The countries should make efforts in establishing confidence-building measures that will further build trust and promote cooperation.

  1. Mitigating a Regional Crisis with China

The United States along with P5+1 countries could apply economic and diplomatic sanctions instead of dispatching the naval and air forces directly in the region. The result of sending the military could be opposite. So, to deter China, measures like these may only inflame hostilities. It is also to be seen that how many other nations support this decision, given the fact that China is becoming an economic powerhouse.

Given the speed, intensity and scale of activities ongoing in the South China Sea garbed as China’s ‘land manufacturing’, it is to be seen how far the debate over the portion of sea continues.

Akanksha Mittal

Akanksha Mittal, an avid reader, frequent traveler and a passionate blogger hails from Delhi, the capital of India. Her key areas of interest lies in politics, foreign policy, and international relations. When it comes to learning about different faiths and cultures, she is always curious. She can be reached at [email protected]
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