Hopes of resolving the South China Sea’s bitter territorial disputes have once again proven illusory.
Meeting in Myanmar over the week-end, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) shied away from backing the Filipino proposal for a freeze on destabilising unilateral challenges to the territorial status quo.
Although this is typical of ASEAN’s limp diplomacy, even a strong Southeast Asian stance would be inadequate in the face of a great immovable: Chinese intransigence.
Beijing’s steadfast determination to press on with plans to extend its de facto sovereignty means that any well-intentioned initiative to establish a moratorium on unilateral challenges to the territorial status quo is quite literally dead in the water.
A brutally realist approach to the South China Sea’s territorial disputes is now needed.
Instead of vainly seeking a negotiated solution, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and China should start drawing lines in the water and divide the South China Sea into spheres of influence.
Territorial claims among the five key claimant states overlap over vast swathes of sea.
With each claimant state looking to expand its de facto control to cover the full extent of its territorial claims, the net result is regular naval confrontations, harassment of fishermen, and sabotage of state-owned commercial operations.
Establishing tacitly accepted spheres of influence would guard against this aggressive cut and thrust of claimant states jockeying for control over additional territory.
Each claimant state would recognise the control of the other parties over certain sectors of the South China Sea in exchange for the same assurances vis-à-vis its own sphere of influence. And these assurances of mutual non-interference could be applied to the activities most likely to inflame tensions, including maritime patrols, commercial fishing, and natural resources exploration and exploitation.
A spheres of influence model would require mutual recognition of control of territory, and yet it would certainly not demand acceptance of the legitimacy of this control, much less acceptance of the underlying sovereignty claims.
In fact, the success of such a model depends on not adjudicating and resolving the fundamental question of which states have sovereignty over which tranches of territory. This is because claimant states may well be convinced to divide the South China Sea into spheres of influence for the sake of deescalating the conflict, but not if such a move means abandoning their own sovereignty claims.
Despite its apparent modesty, it might be objected that a spheres of influence model will still prove diabolically difficult to implement.
If claimant states cannot agree to simple rules of engagement in the South China Sea (e.g. the still unrealised Code of Conduct), then presumably they will not condone even a temporary division of disputed territory? And surely Beijing’s absolutist attitude towards its territorial claims will scuttle any attempt to establish spheres of influence?
Although coaxing claimant states into adopting a spheres of influence model may admittedly be challenging, such a strategy has a successful precedent.
Having traded numerous diplomatic barbs and fought a bloody war in 1962 over strategically valuable tracts of the Himalayas, China and India reached an agreement over the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 1993.
Without prejudicing either the Chinese or the Indian claims to disputed territory, this landmark accord saw Beijing and New Delhi agree to restrict troop movements and air force overflights to their respective sides of the LAC.
To be sure, there have been many violations of the LAC, particularly by China, and the precise location of the dividing line is a matter of debate between Beijing and New Delhi.
Nevertheless, the LAC provides each country with a framework for peacefully calling for the withdrawal of armed forces when major transgressions occur. Indeed, even China’s 19km incursion—or ‘invasion,’ as it was dubbed by elements of India’s media—into Indian-controlled territory in 2013 resulted in swift Chinese disengagement and a rare admission of error from Beijing.
By separating Chinese and Indian-controlled territory, the LAC ensures that Sino-Indian territorial disputes are now far less violent and volatile than those in the South China Sea.
If this Sino-Indian experience with an LAC is at all indicative, dividing the South China Sea into spheres of influence could offer an effective means of taking the heat out of one of Asia’s most fraught geopolitical flashpoint.
A negotiated solution to the South China Sea’s territorial disputes might still be the ideal outcome. But with the perfect so often the enemy of the good, claimant states should not overlook more rough and ready remedies.
Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.