Comment & Analysis - July 06, 2011
Risk of Accidental Escalation in the South China Sea
The risk of confrontation in the South China Sea (SCS) is increasing as a result of recent maritime encounters between China and Vietnam. During two incidents on May 26th and June 9th, Vietnamese oil exploration vessels conducting seismic surveys were harassed by Chinese ships. This has brought to a head the long-standing territorial dispute over the areas around the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the SCS.
Stephanie T. Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the China and North East Asia project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Beijing, believes conflict in the SCS is a distinct possibility. “Given the current highly charged situation and proliferation of maritime patrol boats in the region, a clash between claimant country vessels has potential to devolve into a shooting incident – for example, between Vietnam and China,” Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt told the International Peace Institute during a June 21st interview.
There are three main reasons why the areas around the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos are so heavily contested:
-- Natural resources: Vast oil and gas reserves are suspected in the areas surrounding the two archipelagos.
-- Geopolitical competition: With China rising as a naval power, the current dominant power in the Pacific Ocean, the United States, is looking for ways to maintain its influence. China is looking to push back and prevent containment of its naval expansion.
-- Access to fish stocks: The area is home to significant fish stocks providing livelihoods for large communities in the region’s states.
Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam are claiming all or parts of the contested territory, though China’s claims are the most extensive and cover almost the entire SCS. China argues that the island groups have been part of Chinese territory for over 2,000 years. And although China is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS], Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt noted that "its still ambiguous claim is not grounded in the international law of the convention.”
Vietnam contests China’s position, claiming to have ruled over the islands since the seventeenth century and stating that the islands fall entirely within its territory. Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines invoke geographical proximity and say that parts of the islands fall within their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), in accordance with the UNCLOS.
The risks for conflict have been exposed on multiple occasions in the past. In 1974 and 1988, the dispute turned bloody when the Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed in the SCS. During these confrontations, China gained full control over the Paracel Islands as well as over parts of the Spratly Islands, and more than 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed.
According to Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt, “These competing claims, along with a history of confrontations, make the SCS one of the world’s most sensitive regions.”
The path out of the current crisis is fraught with difficulties. Geopolitical competition, overlapping claims, and disunity among ASEAN states combine to create a complex overall state of affairs.
At the geopolitical level, competition between China and the United States for naval supremacy in the Pacific Ocean and the SCS looms large. “China is deeply concerned about tightening security ties between the US and countries in the region,” Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt said. “China’s recent provocative actions in the SCS and increasing naval capabilities make other claimant countries doubt Beijing’s proclaimed commitment to the peaceful solution of maritime disputes.” Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt said that "all of this strengthens U.S. determination to multilateralize the issue of the South China Sea as much as possible."
China is bent on resolving the issue bilaterally in order to maximize its leverage over the smaller countries involved, while other countries, including Vietnam and the United States, are supporting a multilateral approach. A multilateral solution would pit China against a group of nations bargaining collectively and considerably weaken China’s position. Given the underlying geopolitical factors, China is particularly reluctant to accept outside intervention.
However, a multilateral approach is unlikely to gain any traction from the outset, despite US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's offer in August 2010 of US mediation and Vietnam’s subsequent advocacy for a multilateral approach. The United States is likely, however, to continue to try and play a central role. David Bosco in his Foreign Policy blog The Multilateralist cited the US chief of naval operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, who emphasized the importance of a continued U.S. presence for stability in the region and even raised the issue of US accession to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in order to lend its efforts greater credibility. Disagreement within the region remains a key obstacle to progress.
“ASEAN members remain divided over the SCS,” said Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt, noting that these countries “have divergent economic and security interests, from Vietnam’s hard line claims to Malaysia’s economically driven pragmatism and Myanmar’s rubber stamp for China’s position."
"This makes a collective ASEAN position highly unlikely,” she said.
The stakes are high in the SCS. The murky legal environment, vital economic interests, and power politics produce serious volatility and the risk of conflict. Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt warns with urgency that it is incumbent upon the countries involved, particularly China and Vietnam, to defuse the tensions, given that “the most critical risk factor for conflict in the region is accidental escalation.”
The Global Observatory
Deluge of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Awakens Old Sectarian Divisions
Sectarian violence in Lebanon is linked to complex historical and political issues that are being exacerbated by the large number of Syrian refugees.
Key Global Events to Watch in June
A list of key upcoming meetings and events with implications for global affairs.
Top 10 Issues to Watch in 2013: The Multilateral Arena
Ten key issues that are likely to impact global affairs in international peace, security, and development.
The Global Observatory, produced by IPI, provides timely analysis on peace and security issues, interviews with leading policymakers, interactive maps, and more.
June 10, 2013
Haass: America Overreaching Abroad, Underperforming at Home
“I have a strong sense that the United States, over the last decade or so, has somewhat lost its way in the world,” said Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order.
June 07, 2013
IPI Launches New Report on Peace Operations and Organized Crime
On June 7th, IPI launched a new publication entitled “The Elephant in the Room: How Can Peace Operations Deal with Organized Crime?” a policy-oriented report designed to reduce the impact of crime where UN peace operations are trying to make, keep, or build peace.
June 07, 2013
Global Governance and the State of Nuclear Weapons
The nuclear status quo is not sustainable— this was one of the main conclusions from a June 7th IPI roundtable discussion on the recently published report entitled “Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play," edited by Ramesh Thakur and Gareth Evans.