On September 18, Moscow hosted the third international scientific conference on the South China Sea, organized by the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This was a milestone for the international scientific forum, which brought together prominent geopolitical experts studying this region from such states as the UK, Singapore, Australia, India and even Mexico. The discussion held at the forum centered around the tangle of contradictions existing in the South China Sea region, with experts trying to propose a road map that would lead to mutual peace and cooperation.
Those present at the forum have come to the conclusion that the tensions in the South China Sea have reached a new, even more dangerous level, evolving from a regional conflict that could be largely attributed to China’s expansion into the South China Sea and its territorial disputes with ASEAN states, into a global conflict, that is being driven by a face-off between Beijing and Washington.
The experience of the two previous forums held in 2013 and 2015 has proven that opinions expressed by international experts from states in no way directly involved in the conflict are extremely beneficial in one’s attempts to find a way to resolve the conflict. Previously, proposals were made to formulate new rules of engagement for all parties engaged in the South China Sea dispute in a bid to achieve deescalation. The opinions voiced at the two previous forums received a wide response in the region and were soon used by most regional players in their attempts to create a conflict-free road map.
Dmitry Mosyakov, Professor, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Director of the Centre for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences would discuss the pivotal aspects of the now evolved conflict in the South China Sea. In particular, he pointed out that the transition of the conflict into a direct confrontation between China and the United States gives a new quality to the existing global confrontation, which explains why the dispute is now being covered internationally by virtually every large media organization. One shouldn’t overlook the fact that this latest transition changes the entire political architecture within the region.
Indeed, within these new dynamics, both the face-off between China and Vietnam, and the face-off between ASEAN states and China are gradually becoming secondary to the confrontation between Beijing and Washington. Indeed, disputes won’t vanish into thin air, but certainly surrender center stage to the global confrontation between China and the United States. In this light, the basic motivations and the overall dynamics that determine the nature of the conflict are quite naturally bound to change. After all, if in the context of the face-off with Vietnam, Beijing’s actions can easily be described as expansionism, as well as with Beijing’s relations with other ASEAN states, we can all agree that those same actions appear in a slightly different light – they can be regarded as China’s attempts to create a security belt against the threat posed by the United States.
A new spin to this conflict inevitably gives rise to new justifications for existing phenomena, since now the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea that Beijing has been engaged in can be regarded as an attempt to create an alternative to American aircraft carriers, instead of viewing it as an unfriendly gesture to its regional neighbors. It’s safe to say that China would attempt turning men made islands into impenetrable fortresses capable of defending large strips of sea and land.
As we see in this new reality, the old conflict loses seemingly unshakable attributes as it’s been noted by Dr. Evgeny Kanaev Professor, Department of International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Leading Researcher, Center for Asia Pacific Studies, since the face-off undergoes a transition to a new level. In particular, he pointed out that in recent years China has managed to significantly increase its presence in the region, primarily due to the development of civil and military infrastructure in the disputed territories.
Some prominent Western political scientists such as Carlyle A. Thayer Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales (UNSW), the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra, Director of Thayer Consultancy and Richard A. Bitzinger Senior Fellow, Military Transformations Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore would provide an analysis of the approach that the administration of US President Donald Trump would choose towards the South China Sea conflict. They would harshly criticize the policies pursued by the US President in the region. It’s been noted that unpredictability, arrogance and reluctance of the sitting American president to delve deeper into existing international conflicts, and in particular, in the South China Sea are regrettable at best. According to Richard A. Bitzinger, when Trump took office he would lift all the restrictions that existed to keep Washington’s advancement against China in place. And now it is almost impossible to foresee an approach that the Trump administration could take into this situation to avoid expanding the conflict. Trump’s decision to send American destroyers into South China Sea waters on a regular basis, while denying a similar right to China was a heavily criticized example of this. They also noted that this development represents a very dangerous game, full of uncertainties, showing how much the US president underestimates the threats connected with the possibility of a major conflict breaking out, the consequences of which would be grim at best. After all, any random shot fired in the South China Sea can lead to a catastrophy.
China’s policies in the region, namely the construction of artificial islands and an ongoing supply of arms to regional players would also receive its share of criticism at the forum. The militarization of China’s artificial islands on which it deploys modern defense facilities is unanimously condemned by all neighboring states in the region, since this approach runs contra to compromise, only increasing tension. This was noted by Dr. Probal Ghosh, who is a SEAS Fellow and has had the rare privilege of being the Co-Chairman and India Representative to two consecutive CSCAP International Study Groups. He believes that the most dangerous aspect of this deployment lies in the fact that regional players are being drawn into a new arms race.
The maritime law experts that took part in the forum would stress the importance of the decisions of the Hague Tribunal on the South China Sea, which rejected China’s territorial claims as unfounded. Beijing claimed a total of 80% of the waters of this sea, since it claimed control over a 12-mile zone around the artificial islands it created. However, they were regarded by international law as reefs – “that is, stones on which it is impossible to ensure human life and any sort of economic activities” and they are still being considered as so. It was also noted that the construction of artificial islands without coordination with neighbors doesn’t simply provoke conflict and violate international norms, but destroys the marine environment of the South China Sea as well.
From the point of view of Prof. Dr. Erik Franckx Member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Research Professor, President of the Department of International and European Law, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), the decisions of the Hague Tribunal were made in full compliance with the accepted norms of international law, and on the whole it is an important document for the process of political settlement of the conflict. Although China doesn’t recognize the decision of the tribunal, considering it biased, along with principles that were applied by this tribunal like the refusal to consider as arguments the so-called historical law (and this approach was fully supported by the Vietnamese, the Philippines, and other ASEAN countries). In the opinion of Dr. Ian Storey Senior Fellow, Editor, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies the judgment passed by the tribunal has “far-reaching consequences”. There is no doubt that if one is to rely heavily on the norms of international law, one would have considerably less trouble searching for a compromise with its neighbors.
Those present at the forum have also stressed that the restoration of trust between China and ASEAN should become an important aspect in the reduction of tensions both parties are searching for. Here, the parties must make mutual concessions and, in particular, form areas for joint economic projects, political initiatives and socio-cultural cooperation. The main point, as the participants of the forum agreed, is that there are steps to be taken to gradually build mutual trust and define a “road map” to peace and stability in the South China Sea.
Dmitry Mosyakov, Professor, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Director of the Centre for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“