Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

Topic Debate: South China Sea Dispute

Background: The body of water commonly referred to as the South China Sea is located in the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by (in clockwise formation) China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. In addition to its geopolitical significance, where a third of the world’s shipping transits through, it is reported that “under the seabed lies as much as 130 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillian cubic feet of gas.”

Historically, the surrounding countries always had competing claims to the diminutive and mostly uninhabited islands, but recent events between the U.S. ally, the Philippines, and China have exacerbated tensions. The New York Times’ Jane Perlez contextualizes an incident over one of the islands:

“Superficially, the squabble was over some rare corals, clams and poached sharks that Philippine Navy seamen were trying to retrieve in early April from the fishing boats operating in the Scarborough Shoal of the South China Sea until two Chinese Marine Surveillance craft intervened. After two tense days, the Philippine ship — a refitted Coast Guard cutter sent by the United States last year to beef up its ally’s weak defenses — withdrew. But the stakes were much larger, as the insistent claims ever since of sovereignty over the shoal by both the Philippine and Chinese governments made clear. The incident intensified longstanding international questions over the strategically critical, potentially energy-rich South China Sea that have become more urgent this year as the long-dominant United States and fast-growing China both seek to increase their naval power in the region.”

Below, we provide a sampler of perspectives from the parties involved, that is China, the Philippines, and the U.S.:

  • Li Mingjiang is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the China Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. In the East Asia Forum, Mingjiang outlines the Chinese perspective, what they see as “China’s Non-Confrontational Assertiveness in the South China Sea,” since China argues that it has a right to 200-nautical-mile zone.
  • In The Diplomat, Mong Palatino, member of Philippine Parliament, explains “Why Filipinos are Angry with China,” since Beijing’s territorial claims infringe upon deposits that Manila claims as its own and has already planned to begin drilling.
  • Brendan O’Reilly, a China-based writer and educator, wrote in Asia Times how, aside from the U.S. and the Philippines’ extensive diplomatic and military ties, an incident highlighting the latter’s tenuous defense bolsters arguments for Obama Administration’s strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific and a stronger U.S. military presence in region.
  • Discussion of increasing freedom of navigation for the U.S. military’s Pacific patrols and missions brings up the contentious issue of whether or not the U.S. should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Proponents of the Treaty argue that it codifies U.S. military freedom of action vis-à-vis its own legal standing to bring complaints to an international dispute resolution body. Opponents and skeptics of international law view the treaty as anything from a breach of U.S. sovereignty to an in-executable waste of time.
  • For example, Senior Fellow and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council for Foreign Relations, Stewart Patrick, states that “Everyone Agrees: Ratify the Law of the Sea,” citing to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and the U.S. military writ large in his argument as to how the treaty is profoundly in the U.S. national interest.
  • On the other hand, Patrick’s colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, Max Boot, argues that, “China seems bent on laying claim to those resources, no matter what the Law of the Sea Treaty says, which highlights the chief problem with international law: the difficulty of actually enforcing it.”

How do you think the U.S. should deal with the South China Sea disputes? Become a part of the discussion below.






3 Responses »

  1. This is a connected issue that cannot be dealt with independent of developments in other strategic seas/regions globally.

    Precedents and decision-making templates formed here will result in (or be in some meaningful part the result of) evolving conditions, decisions, and actions elsewhere. The south china sea area represents an energetic nexus of interests. So too (for example) does the arctic region and its evolving connected seas/transits, resources, and “territories”.

    Gravitational weights of these nexi should be taken in holistic measure, and an integrated strategic understanding/acting continuum developed that allows: trends to be discerned and understood relativistically; competing and adversarial interests to be mapped ahead of acts; disruptors predicted meaningfully; hypotheses competed effectively; and decisions/actions to be set in motion beneficially without needless rancor and melodramatization.

    How do we step back from the framework that has and is being defined by the actors involved and those on the periphery, particularly those who hope to shape our understandings and actions? How do we step aside from the weighting of factors that are pre-defined or driven by improper or impractical interest? How do we cast aside the leaven of academic and diplomatic sophistry, while still clinging to the pearls of understanding they offer? What is the mechanical picture when psychological factors are somewhat stripped away? How do these relate, and what do the linkages (and an historical analysis) tell us about who is acting, how, why, and when? How do we shape the psychology of the contest, behavior of individual participants, and our own proactive/reactive actions? How are we being shaped? How do we discern, affect, and influence torsions of meaningful curves?

    The south china sea region is yet another area of competition where decisions that are going to be made one way or the other. As it is, we have in meaningful part allowed ourselves to idle along on this region in many respects until arriving at the cusp of yet another critical event horizon. Change in artificial and unsustainable status-quo will arrive and kick the doors in (again, one way or the other). Strategic decision-making left untended, too often falls haphazardly into the hands of uncomprehending young adults in-situ. Young adults with little or no experience and preparation for grappling with global pressures and contexts. Young adults still, by-and-large, struggling to outgrow the banal provincial unrealisms they have generally been saddled with on a nation-by-nation basis. I know, I was one of those 22-year olds once, with the weight of the world resting on our shoulders and only sophomoric grasps of contexts involved.

    What should we do? Those of us in positions of knowledge, wisdom, and authority need to pull our collected heads out of our narcissistic sandcastles, and start making decisions that put our jobs on the line before we put our sons’ and daughters’ lives on the line. Before we ask some 22-year-old to stare down the barrel of a gun at another 22-year-old doing the same, both believeing themselves to be doing the right thing, we need to assume postures of humble determination and take full and matured measure of the situation. Then, develop strategies in the centers of gravity of our understanding, commit to plausible/durable courses of action before they must occur, and loose the leashes on our diplomatic bulldogs while they still have time to do what they can do effectively. BEFORE we have to let loose the dogs of war, yet again.


  1. Topic Debate: China’s Military and U.S. Strategy | LDESP Blog
  2. China’s Territory Disputes: The Nexus between Economy, Military, and Leadership | LDESP Blog

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