Three possible scenarios in South China Sea

Dec 31, 2012- The dispute in the South China Sea; the prospect of a major military confrontation or its peaceful resolution, has been an important issue throughout the past year.

Vietnam warships in East Vietnam Sea.

With 2013 around the corner, it is a good time to explore the possible future scenarios for the situation in that area.

The projection of the future of the South China Sea is structured along six key determinants of stability. The six drivers are first, the presence of a hegemonic power that has the capacity and incentive to create a stable order, second, the equal distribution of military power and avoidance of overly aggressive behavior, third, the adherence to international norms of peaceful settlement of disputes, fourth, a preference to maintain international economic ties and development, fifth, the presence of institutions to regularize dialogue and cooperation, and sixth, united domestic entities that prefer win-win and peaceful solutions.

So, what does the future hold for the South China Sea? Do the six factors correspond to the current situation? There are three possible scenarios; the apocalypse scenario, the dream scenario and the status-quo scenario.

The apocalypse, or worst possible case, scenario would be one in which the conflict among the disputants erupts and involves the US. The major military confrontation would stem from the inability of the US to maintain neutrality in the dispute, or the total withdrawal of the US from the region, a complete breakdown of regional talks, dismissal of international norms and narrow calculation by the disputants.

The dream scenario refers to a situation in which the territorial claims are completely and peacefully resolved, and a win-win
solution is produced. For convergence to occur, the claimants would have to take pragmatic stances and the six factors would have to be in place.

In the status-quo scenario, which is the most likely scenario for the next 10 years, the claimants adopt half-hearted attitudes to resolving the territorial claims and maintaining stability.

The current information suggests that a major conflict will not take place. Military analysts at IHS Jane’s say that Southeast Asian countries, including the claimants, together increased defense spending by 13.5 percent last year, to US$24.5 billion. The figure is projected to rise to $40 billion by 2016. This will prevent China from forcefully pressuring other claimants or occupying the territory that it claims.

The other stabilizing factor is the US. The US pivot to Asia Pacific since 2009 includes the commitment to keep all claimants in check since this area has a high strategic and economic value. Nearly a third of the world’s maritime shipping traverse this area.

An encouraging sign has come from China’s next leader Xi Jinping. In his address to the annual meeting with ASEAN members, held in the southern Chinese city of Nanning recently, Xi said China was committed to “common development and a peaceful regional solution to the dispute”.

The claimants’ desire to maintain regional peace and stability, however, might not be enough to ensure future stability. The ability of central governments to persuade the various domestic institutions, and their peoples to adopt a win-win, comprehensive, peaceful solution is also crucial.

So far, China has been having difficulties in convincing various institutions or indeed its people who prefer to see an assertive stance, of the importance of preserving regional peace and stability as a precondition of economic development.

Angguntari C. Sari

The writer is a lecturer at the department of international relations, Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung.