Unilateral, Bilateral or Multilateral Intervention
Which approach will best resolve tensions in the South China Sea?
When a pair of massive earthquakes hit Nepal in April and May of 2015, more than 8,635 people were killed and more than 21,485 others injured, making it the nation’s deadliest disaster on record. The multilateral response to the natural disaster and level of cooperation from across the region proved unprecedented.
In the immediate aftermath, 18 countries expediently sent military personnel to provide coordinated relief. India offered 13 helicopters, including Russian Mi-17s and Indian utility machines known as Advanced Light Helicopters; the U.S. deployed seven helicopters; and China flew three helicopters to assist with search and rescue efforts, airlifting the injured and delivering relief supplies, among other activities, the website indianexpress.com reported.
Multilateral regional responses to everything from natural disasters and health crises to trafficking and piracy are increasingly proving effective in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and beyond. Besides the recent humanitarian relief supplied to Nepal, multilateral victories involving Indo-Asian-Pacific nations range from the effective response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to successful anti-piracy efforts around the Horn of Africa.
Countries across the region are increasingly showing they know how to be responsible actors when it comes to resolving even more difficult and complicated issues such as territorial disagreements among nations. Consider the posturing between India and China on border disputes such as the McMahon Line that Britain, which then controlled the area, designated as a boundary in a 1914 treaty deal with Tibet. In a May 2015 news release, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he and China’s Premier Li Keqiang would work on a “fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable resolution” to the issue. In response, Li agreed that the two countries’ “common interests are far bigger than our differences,” the English version of the lankaherald.com website reported in May 2015.
However, when it comes to resolving tensions in the South China Sea, one key player, namely China, has repeatedly rejected multilateral interventions, as well as requests to act responsibly in the region. In August 2013, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan rebuked multilateral solutions to settle rival territorial claims in the region. “These disputes should be resolved by the countries directly concerned,” Gen. Chang said, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal newspaper. “We oppose any attempt to internationalize or complicate the disputes.” China, however, did state at the same news conference that it would negotiate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over a common maritime code of conduct for the region, the report said.
Since then, China has escalated its assertive posturing in the region, often acting unilaterally to stake its claims. In late November 2013, it declared an Air-Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, essentially claiming control of areas disputed with Japan and South Korea. Aircraft flying in such an area, even when it extends beyond a given nation’s territory, may be interrogated and intercepted for identification before crossing into sovereign airspace.
The move sparked concerns that China intends to extend the ADIZ to include contested territory in the South China Sea, which would potentially have significant economic and trade ramifications, according to a December 2013 account on the Asia Times website, www.atimes.com.
China may do just that, People’s Liberation Army Adm. Sun Jianguo said at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the annual Asia Pacific security summit. “Whether we will establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea will depend on whether our maritime security will be threatened,” he said, according to a May 2015 report in The Wall Street Journal.
China’s overall provocations have been insidious. Chinese Coast Guard vessels have repeatedly harassed Vietnamese and Philippine fishermen. Meanwhile, Chinese fishermen have been spotted illegally fishing as far west as the coast of Africa, Reuters reported in May 2015. China has provoked other maritime security forces by shadowing aircraft, obstructing exploration work and encroaching on other nations’ territories. In June 2015, for example, China anchored a Coast Guard ship in Malaysia’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), drawing protests from Malaysian officials.
Such standoffs could have diplomatic consequences, writes Vijay Sakhuja, director of the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi in a May 2015 Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analysis. This may result “in a soured relationship and fading of the ‘charm offensive’ that has been very cleverly employed by China through a number of economic engagements with the Southeast Asian countries. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese initiative to finance infrastructure construction in the continents, may run into serious jeopardy if China does not stop its provocative behavior in the South China Sea,” Sakhuja wrote. “Likewise, Southeast Asian countries may shy away from the Chinese 21st century maritime silk road, which could be a major setback for the Chinese leadership, which sees Southeast Asia as a springboard to launch the initiative.”
China, meanwhile, has undertaken ambitious projects, building large landing strips, helipads, a radar dome, portable concrete factories and assorted military support facilities such as schools for children of military personnel atop several of the disputed reefs, according to CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. So far, other nations’ land creation efforts such as those by Malaysia and Vietnam have been on a much smaller scale.
China’s activities contrast sharply with those of other claimants. Comparing China’s actions with those of Taiwan, for instance, provides useful insights. Taiwan has not undertaken the wholesale development of military facilities in the South China Sea, although Taiwan upholds claims similar to those of China. Taiwan is building a U.S. $100 million port on Itu Aba, which is the only island Taiwan occupies in the South China Sea, Reuters reported in May 2014. Officials told Reuters the new port would support trade and help Taiwan deep-sea fishermen and marine and mineral research in the area. Every year, about U.S. $5 trillion in goods passes through the South China Sea.
Malaysian Armed Forces chief Gen. Zulkifeli Mohd. Zin challenged China’s motivations behind its land creation activities during the Shangri-La Dialogue, The Wall Street Journal reported in May 2015. “We do not know what they are trying to do,” he said. “It would be good if China can come out publicly and announce what they are doing, so that they can be seen to be more transparent.”
A growing chorus of international players and experts suggests that multilateral intervention and regional cooperation may maximize Indo-Asia-Pacific allies’ and partners’ abilities to address Beijing’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and achieve peaceful resolutions in keeping with international norms.
ROOTS OF REGIONAL COOPERATION
Since the 1960s, ASEAN has served as a source of regional multilateralism and has long been at the forefront of resolving disagreements in the South China Sea. In 2002, ASEAN and China signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The agreement strove to “enhance favorable conditions for a peaceful and durable solution of differences and disputes among countries concerned.”
Although China’s relations with ASEAN had been getting stronger in the decades since the declaration was signed, a viable resolution has still not emerged. Claimant nations have since called for a formal Code of Conduct to supplant the previous declaration and incorporate challenges that have emerged since the turn of the millennium. For its part, the United States supports ASEAN assuming a leadership role in achieving a resolution to the disputes.
China’s refusal to enter into multilateral commitments in the South China Sea seems curious. The nation has successfully engaged in multilateral solutions to resolve other situations, including Asian border disputes, which demonstrates that the nation can successfully work multilaterally and is not limited to bilateral agreements that have historically been its fallback approach to maintaining the status quo.
Although China supports regional security dialogues in general, when it comes to action, it typically avoids committing to institutionalized agreements. In this sense, China employs multilateralism selectively in general and particularly in the South China Sea.
In recent decades, multilateral responses to disputes in the region have proven important by most accounts. China’s unwillingness to participate in multilateral approaches to the South China Sea in light of the escalating disputes, presents opportunities for regional allies and partners to strengthen cooperative efforts and partnerships.
Indo-Asia-Pacific nations are increasingly recognizing that partnerships can bolster multilateral response. For example, a June 2015 Japan-Philippine Joint Declaration asserts the importance of security cooperation between the two nations, as well as with other allies, “at a time when the security environment in the region is faced with many challenges.”
“The development of a Philippine-Japan strategic partnership is part of a trend developing among U.S. allies and security partners in the region in the face of China’s growing naval power,” Renato Cruz de Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University in Manila, wrote in a July 2015 analysis for CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
By partnering with Japan, the Philippines can maintain its economic independence from China. Meanwhile, Japan can support the U.S.-Philippine alliance to counter China’s assertive expansionism in the South China Sea. “These partners regard American strategic presence as the best guarantee of peace and security in East Asia; however, they also see the urgency to establish and foster security relationships among themselves to amplify the stabilizing effects of U.S. forward-deployed presence and alliances in the region,” Cruz de Castro wrote.
The Philippines and Vietnam have also strengthened their partnership to safeguard common interests in the South China Sea. They have drafted a strategic partnership agreement to create a bilateral dialogue, synchronize their diplomatic stances and facilitate joint naval and coast guard exercises and scientific research in the South China Sea, philstar.com, the online presence of the STAR Group of Publications, reported in April 2015.
When Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Manila in mid-2014, he asked the Philippines for advice on employing the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to resolve disputes. “Given Vietnam’s geographical proximity and economic dependence on China, not to mention the country’s strong party-to-party ties, it has had to tread more cautiously than the Philippines, which enjoys a treaty alliance with Washington,” Richard Javad Heydarian, assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila, wrote in a July 2015 analysis for CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. “Nevertheless, what’s clear is that despite their age-old rivalry in the Spratlys, Manila and Hanoi have been bound by a common threat in China.”
Moreover, the Philippines and Vietnam have reached to external powers including the United States and Japan by inviting them to help improve domain awareness and deterrence capability, according to a December 2013 account on the Asia Times website. The Philippines, for example, is evaluating allowing Japanese troops access to Philippine military bases near the South China Sea, the dailybalita.com, a Philippine website, reported. In exchange, Japan is contemplating sharing P-3C anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft and radar technology with the Philippines, the website reported. Indeed, multilateral and bilateral agreements need not be mutually exclusive.
Nations must work to strike an appropriate balance between multilateral and bilateral intervention in the South China Sea. Success stories from Nepal to the Horn of Africa reveal responsible reactions and resolutions of issues in the region through multilateral approaches to disputes. The success of multilateral mechanisms in the South China Sea for the long term depends on individual nations and especially China’s ability to understand how cooperation can best protect sovereignty, bolster security and manage economic, environmental and resource concerns.
The advantages of multilateral responses for achieving regional security and transnational goals far outweigh any perceived loss of influence by any given individual nation, experts agree. Moreover, multilateral interventions will become increasing important for combating terrorism, piracy, trafficking and more as the global economy continues to emerge.
Regional leaders remain hopeful China will act responsibly in the South China Sea. Malaysian Armed Forces chief Gen. Zulkifeli was encouraged by China’s apparent willingness to engage with other stakeholders in the South China Sea during the Shangri-La Dialogue, The Wall Street Journal reported in May 2015. “I’m reassured by what [Adm. Sun Jianguo] said because he said China would continue to work on the Code of Conduct — that means China has not rejected that,” Gen. Zulkifeli said. “It is up to ASEAN and the claimant states to help them do this.”