U.S. aircraft carriers operate in formation in the South China Sea. on February 15, 2010. (Official U.S. Navy Imagery/flickr)
Last week, the Philippines sought to increase pressure on China over its claims in the South China Sea by filing a legal claim against the country under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas. While unprecedented, the Philippines knows that it cannot afford derailing the economic relationship with its third largest trading partner, China, and a verdict — to be issued several years down the line — will ultimately be unenforceable.
Why, then, would the Philippines take this action now, given the irritation it might cause China, risks to economic relations, and the likely minimal impact it will have on altering China’s behavior?
One overarching reason is that in Asia, international relations, at least in the political sphere, are dictated largely by domestic affairs. The legacy of colonialism, and its associated web of international alliances, means that East Asian countries often distrust their neighbors and global powers as well. Distrust has created insular and highly nationalistic policies, a convenient tool for governments wishing to pin domestic governance and economic challenges on the legacy of foreign oppression.
The South China Sea is an ideal distraction from the domestic challenges of Asian countries. The territory is believed to hold significant energy resources, but how much is unknown. At present, countries in the region are sufficiently resourced to maintain their (slowing as they may be) growth trajectories. If domestic energy sources dry up, the challenge of maintaining peace will be even greater.
But the international news media is prematurely hyping the disputes and highlighting the verbal barbs being traded between countries at all levels. It’s true, as The Economist pointed out this past week, that a clash over territory would “imperil the region’s peace and its momentous economic advances.” But this isn’t going to happen, at least not yet.
Risking a conflict over the South China Sea area — and the coinciding economic collapse — would pose a greater risk for domestic political leadership, and so naval vessels and troops remain largely stationed at home.
So while a statement released by the Philippines read, “One cannot put a price in the concerted effort of the Filipino people and government in defending our patrimony, territory, national interest and national honor,” the country would be misguided in pursuing anything more than legal action.
In the Philippines, and other countries in the region, the price for maintaining “national honor” with force is prohibitively expensive. Blustering, however, ultimately serves domestic political interests as creating a unified, national stance is quite valuable for political parties wishing to secure their futures in a tenuous political environment.
The South China Sea dispute has long evoked nationalist feelings. In 2007, protests over the South China Sea curiously materialized in Vietnam, and then quickly faded. One Sunday in front of the Chinese Embassy and Consulate in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for example, protestors took to the street, a strange sight in Communist controlled Vietnam, where public protest is typically curtailed.
Police stood by, watching the protestors picket, then, like they had been queued to take action from the top, the police quietly shooed the protestors away. It made for a couple of nice snapshots in local and international papers, but none of the protestors objected to putting their placards away.
A week later, the protests seemed to become more organic in nature, as comments labeling China as the oppressor were bandied about the blogosphere, as well as the streets. China objected, but Vietnam’s “crackdown” on the protests seemed almost to have been staged. The protests were a reminder to the Vietnamese people — most of whom have no direct stake with respect to the dispute — about China as the historic aggressor that the Vietnamese military successfully thwarted in 1979.
Fast-forward again to 2013. In 2007, U.S. interests were squarely in the Middle East and South Asia, centered on Iraq and Afghanistan. Interest in the Asia Pacific was being curtailed. Now, the U.S. government’s return to the region further complicates the South China Sea matter, and vexes regional governments unsure of what lengths the U.S. would take in order to stand up for its regional allies. Is America willing to step up and intervene on any of the bilateral disputes, and will U.S. ships in the region act as a stabilizing force?
But ultimately it is nationalist forces within the most vociferous claimant countries of the Philippines, Vietnam and China that can be blamed most for present tensions for three reasons.
First, by asserting sovereignty — even if illegitimately — over a disputed area, a government is able to project an image of power and influence that reinforces its authority. Second, the contradictory assertions of sovereignty by the various claimants help to create an “enemy” that governments can cast as a scapegoat for certain domestic issues and deflect hostility toward. This also engenders greater appreciation for those in office, as it creates a situation that encourages citizens to rely on their governments for protection. Third, the contentious claims regarding the South China Sea shift focus in the direction of international problems and away from domestic ones.
Despite nationalism's propensity for polarizing states, entering into sustained military conflict would undermine these governments’ ability to fulfill societal demands for economic growth, institutions, and security as described above. Protracted military conflict is unlikely owing to the financial costs and risks to property and life. For this reason, greater conflict will not emerge in the near-term.
The parties will continue to agree to disagree, but the conflict is unlikely to escalate much further in the next decade at least. In the meantime, it is unfortunate that opportunities to cooperate on a range of regional issues will be hampered.