The East China Sea Conflict

The issue

The South China Sea is the sea south of China that includes the Spratly Islands, claimed by a number of countries together with China itself. Presently, Vietnam occupies 27 islands, Philippines 8, China 9, Malays 7 and Taiwan 1. But Vietnam and China claim the entire area – the Spratly Islands and the Paracels – basing their claims on historical contacts. The scramble for the islands ensures that certain conflicts are possible. The nations should come to a resolution in order to eliminate the conflict’s possibility completely. As a result, different approaches to the impeding resolution have been taken, including multilateral negotiations, legal resolutions, maritime regime, the workshop approach and maritime energy cooperation (Buszynski, 2011).

Progress Towards Establishing Effective Management Regime in the South China Sea and Reduce Risk of Conflict

According to Buszynski (2010), the Philippine Congress in February 2009 passed a baseline law that was meant to identify the country’s archipelagic baselines only resulting to aggravating China. But, according to Bateman, China’s and Vietnam’s embankment on major public relation programs has bolstered peace in the region. The US, which was involved in the process of finding the resolution to the crux in the late 2010, has emerged as a new key player in the region’s process of rebuilding regional interest to preserve freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The US Secretary of Defense hinted that the United States would not take sides in resolving the issue. However, China warned the US not to interfere at all.

Multilateral Negotiations

A multilateral negotiation is one of the approaches proposed to resolve the conflict. In 1992, president of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, suggested that an international conference under the UN’s supervision and auspices should be conducted concerning the Spratly Islands and demilitarization in the area. However, China quickly opposed the idea. Over time, there have been a few bilateral issues over the South China Sea as China did accept multilateralism in late 2002, thus presenting some hope for the future (Buszynski, 2012).

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Legal Resolution

It has been suggested that a legal resolution to the South China Sea conflict required countries to adopt the UNCLOS principles that would let them present their claims. However, China’s claim to owning about 80% of the disputed area has not defined its suit and these were just vague arguments.

A Maritime Regime

Another idea proposed is a variant-political approach of a maritime regime to govern the South China Sea. It suggests pooling resources from claimant countries (Spratly Resource Development Authority (SRDA)) which will be used to promote joint efforts in developing the area’s resources. The regime will be based on the counties’ common understanding in resolving sea boundaries between the claimants (Christopher, 1999).

The Workshop Approach

This is also called the interactive problem solving and it can be applied when formal diplomacy fails to fulfill its functions and when the claimants are searching for a way to deal with their predicaments. The approach was conceived by Hasjim Djala and its implementation has been sponsored by Indonesian Foreign Ministry till 2001 when CIDA took over. This involved engaging government officials and technical experts on maritime from the claimant countries (Donne). It is reported that after three workshops, China had indicted to retract its claims in order to seek for a “mutually beneficial cooperation with ASEAN.” The proponents of these workshops have justified their meetings by claiming that the delegates are obliged to have relevant information concerning each other as well as their positions. The claim further states that China is obliged to be aware of the delegates’ views and their claims (Buszynski, 2011).

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Maritime Energy Cooperation

If this conflict cannot be resolved by the above methods, then the maritime energy cooperation should be adopted. This is because such an issue, if its resolution is delayed, may create more tension. One of the examples is the precedent of a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (MJU), which was signed in 2004, that involved both the Philippines and China, and later Vietnam in 2005. The postulation is that if the ASEAN countries could promote energy cooperation in the South China Sea on a commercial basis, then the various countries would be forced to work together and avoid conflict (Tønnesson, 2011); (Barry, 2008). Professor Tønnesson further argues that a better choice than to delimit territorial waters would be to make active use of the sea law, even without solving the question of the Spratly Islands’ sovereignty.

To avoid conflicts in the South China Sea, the ASEAN and the South China Sea Dispute have been holding conferences for a long time, the latest having been carried out on 28 February, 2011. Such conferences include journalists, legal professors, academicians, government representatives and other involved parties who try to provide solution to the disputes as well as highlight claims in the context of a legal framework. An example is the involvement of UNCLOS, which can help resolve these disagreements. Creation of new dialogue mechanisms that provide greater opportunity for affected parties should also be encouraged, as it can offer opportunities for a more fruitful cooperation, an example being the South China Sea Coast Guard Forum (Glaser).


The above strategies, employed in conflict resolution in the South China Sea area, have not absolutely achieved their goals as there still remain many unresolved or pending issues, which have not yet been tackled. However, ambitious proposals need to be adopted; they will call for wider sweeping agreements on a legal or political basis and try and make a headway in this dispute. The efforts can still be extended within a multilateral framework and coordinated by the ASEAN, which need to promote this proposal. As the conference report of Singapore summarizes the issue, “the history of the South China Sea can only be better understood and studied when political eras are considered: pre-modern, modern and post-modern” (p. 3).

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