Conflict Resolution in the South China Sea

By Harold J. Raveché, Ph.D.

March 2017

A shorter version of this essay appeared March 24, 2017, in

tillerson-rex-gettyDuring the past 20 years, I have traveled, multiple times a year, to Southeast Asia. As a conference and university speaker, innovation adviser and technological entrepreneur, I have witnessed regional economic growth and political change. I have come to appreciate the intensity of the various claimant nations over rights in the South China Sea (SCS). From these diverse perspectives, I am convinced of the global importance for conflict resolution now.

The current multilateral disputes in the SCS are complex and have deep historical roots, involving ancient civilizational and national conflicts.

More recently, as well, they have a basis in a host of unproven assumptions about the energy riches that lie beneath the waters of the vast areas stretching from China to Vietnam and the Philippines, from Taiwan to Malaysia and Brunei, with Singapore, Japan and South Korea joined in for good measure. Each of these national players has competing claims within the region.

Many of the latest conflicts involve maritime disputes with China over Chinese territorial claims and military expansion into the complex of SCS islands and atolls, including widely scattered geographical targets such as the Paracels, the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal near the Philippines.

The Beijing government lays claim to all of the above, pointing, with dubious justification, to the 18th century expansion of the imperial Qing (Manchu) Dynasty (a claim codified by the vaguely defined “nine-dash line” map, first put forth in 1947 by the pre-Communist Kuomintang government).

Vietnam contests China’s historical account, asserting that China’s formal claim of sovereignty over the islands dates back only to the 1940s. Vietnam, on the other hand, has some convincing historical documentation of its rule over both the Paracels and the Spratlys going back 400 years to the founding of the Nguyen Dynasty.

The other major claimant, the Philippines, largely relies on its geographical proximity to the Spratlys to support its claim of partial ownership of the chain.

Malaysia and Brunei lay claim to SCS territory that falls within their proclaimed economic exclusion zones, under the umbrella of UNCLOS – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China has also become notorious for establishing military and naval bases on “engineered” islands in the SCS, created from subsurface reefs, sandbanks and rocky outcroppings.

Most threatening to its neighbor the Philippines is China’s current plan to install radar in the Scarborough Shoal, which constitutes a potential military projection into what is now an international fishing ground.

Speaking of the immense importance of the SCS as a seafood source for the region, Trefor Moss, writing in the Wall Street Journal, notes that fish stocks in the SCS have fallen 70% to 95% from 1950s levels, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia. Says Moss, “The researchers say if nothing is done to improve fisheries management, these stocks will decline by as much as an additional 59% from 2015 levels in the next 20 years. Estimates are probably on the low side due to unregulated and unreported fishing.”

“Environmental scientists say the dangers are increasing as the conflicting sovereignty claims heat up between China and other Asian nations bordering one of the world’s most strategic maritime routes, which boasts an irreplaceable ecological harvest of atolls, submerged banks, islands, reefs, rock formations, and 3,000 species of fish,” according to James Borton, writing in The Diplomat.

The US has not officially taken sides in territorial disputes, but it has dispatched military ships and aircraft to monitor the disputed islands, pledging the maintenance of “freedom of navigation” in critical shipping lanes, which are also essential to supplying the regional seafood industries.

China and the US have duly accused each other of “militarizing” the waters of the South China Sea.

Add to this mix the fevered oil-and-gas speculation that has gripped many of the regional players in recent years, and the perceptible rise in tensions seems likely to follow an upward trajectory.

The estimates of oil and natural gas deposits are highly varied. Some years back, the Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of China estimated that the South China Sea may contain 17.7 billion tons of crude oil. Since then, other sources have claimed that the proven reserves of oil in the South China Sea may only be 7.5 billion barrels, or about 1.1 billion tons.

Many observers believe that the disputes over energy resources are merely a component, not a driver, of the larger historical territorial conflicts.

“The South China Sea is not Saudi Arabia, it’s not Iraq, it’s not the Middle East,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, associate researcher specialized in international affairs at Tamkang University in Taiwan, quoted last November in VOA News. “The primary purpose of the claimants to be there is not because they want to access the oil and gas resources in the area. Developing hydrocarbon resources in the South China Sea would be a way to mark the territory.”

Furthermore, according to Ryan Opsal, writing in a January 2016 issue of, “The South China Sea is continually paraded as a region rich in oil and gas deposits; however, no one really knows what’s there with any degree of accuracy.”

So – given these uncertainties and interwoven elements of conflict, what is the likelihood of creating a reliable model for resolution, or at least for peaceful arbitration?

In a vast waterway through which $5 trillion in trade moves annually, it is in the global interest to seek some kind of multilateral accommodation for lowering tensions.

Interestingly, in the recent maritime dispute brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the court ruled in July 2016 in favor of the Philippines, concluding that China had no legal basis to claim historic rights to the immense stretches of the South China Sea.

Predictably, Chinese President Xi Jinping rejected the decision, proclaiming, “China will never accept any claim or action based on those awards.” Significantly, China had boycotted the entirety of the judicial proceedings.

However, Taiwan has actually offered some constructive options for dispute resolution, and even for regional cooperation on resource development.

What seems necessary is, perhaps, a US-brokered regional agreement – likely led by energy-savvy Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – with a title on the order of “Elements for International Consensus and Conflict Avoidance.” Tillerson and President Trump are currently scheduled to meet with President Xi at the Mar-a-Lago compound in April.

Among the possible fruitful recommendations that could form the basis for a regional agreement to pursue conflict resolution:

Ø Each nation has the right to fish, explore and exploit gas/oil in waters that are within its territorial maritime boundaries, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles.

Ø Strengthening of regional commerce should be encouraged, based on unchallenged rights for coastal real estate and resort development. Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, as one example, is a highly promising location to boost tourism and resort development in the region. Regional investment would be threatened and impaired by unrestrained military force projection.

Ø In contested  international waters, gas/oil exploration and usage should be developed vis-a-vis joint ventures, with each nation benefiting based on the size of its investment

Ø Nations agree to establish an “International Maritime Conservation and Research Institute,” on the model of the International Space Station, to ensure environmental quality, fish reproduction and exploration of the maritime habitat. The Institute should be  located in The Spratlys because of their strategic position to monitor fish habitats and the impact of hydrocarbon exploration and coastal real estate development.

Ø Nations agree not to establish military force projection areas in order to maintain safe and free passage.

With cooperation from the ASEAN group, this five-point statement of principles could form the proposal that Trump and Tillerson lay on the table with President Xi – and could form the basis for a new and engaged US policy in the region, shaping the boundaries for peaceful coexistence into the next decade and beyond.


Harold J. Raveché, Ph.D. is President, Innovation Strategies International, and the former president of Stevens Institute of Technology. He also serves as leader, global development, at Janus Technologies, a cyber security enterprise in Silicon Valley.