Power, Law and the South China Sea: IISS Panel Review

This afternoon the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) held a panel discussion on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The panel was held in the Ascham Room in Bloomsbury House, a large open space on the 2nd floor with views of tall leafy trees, with US Naval War College Professor Peter Dutton and Australian National University Associate Professor Katherine Morton, Chaired by IISS Senior Fellow Christian Le Mière.

The main debates which emerged focused on different methods of dispute resolution in the SCS, China’s adherence (or selective lack thereof) to international law, the influence of the US in the region, and the domestic tension in Chinese politics regarding territorial claims. Both panelists argued that China will not use military power to defend its disputed territories, but rather a blend of economic and diplomatic pressure, which should also be viewed as an exercise of power.

M. Dutton explained the preferred methods of dispute resolution for the involved states: regarding diplomacy, China prefers bilateral resolutions; “others” (presumably ASEAN members) prefer multilateral negotiations; and the Philippines has launched an arbitration case to be resolved by an international tribunal. Non-diplomatic methods were universally deemed power-based, either through armed conflict or non-militarized coercion (economic and political). M. Dutton argued that China won’t use armed conflict as a dispute resolution technique because it might clash with US interests (Taiwan and the Philippines are American allies), and because China wants to adhere to international norms in its so-called peaceful rise to power.

Dr. Morton opened by remarking that China is and will remain a conservative stakeholder of international law and that the motivation for China to become a maritime power is historical. China rejects the UNCLOS on the basis of historical entitlement, and Beijing sees international pressure for multilateral negotiation as an excuse for foreign intervention. Dr. Morton suggested that there is a “rightful” and “limited” Chinese maritime perspective: the former argues that China deserves maritime power and jurisdiction based on historical presence, and will be bullied by other major powers if it doesn’t aggressively seize maritime opportunities; and the latter posits that China should not defend its disputed territories militarily because it is in China’s interests to focus on economic opportunities instead. She concluded that China has adapted to the “ASEAN way”, and now we shall see if ASEAN will adapt to the Chinese way.

The audience in attendance was a half-full room of middle-aged men with a few middle-aged women, plus me. All the questions were taken from men in the front row; as always with these events, there is only ever time for about 3 and the rest are relegated to the dustbin.

In the end we were left with lingering questions: Will the Philippine arbitration move China to more meaningful negotiations? Is the US neutral? (Answer: No.) How will the US presence in the region influence the outcomes of these disputes? How are tensions between law and policy generally resolved, and how does that apply to the SCS?

As an IR theorist my main frustration is the continued obsession with “balancing” of state power. I would have preferred an analysis of the geography of the SCS (continental shelves, resource distribution, naval traffic), the subtle ways in which states utilize language in their diplomatic negotiations, or a challenge to the assumption that China makes territorial claims based entirely on nationalism. If you’re going to focus on states and power, at least give us a detailed overview of the naval hardware.

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