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April 2013

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Tensions and Diplomacy in the South China Sea
By Ian Storey, Senior Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore)
http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/CNAS_Bulletin_Storey_Slipping_Away.pdf
Reviewed by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor

As the United States attempts to deal with the current threats--verbal and real--from the North Korean regime, regional tensions in the South China Sea between China, the United States, and smaller powers in the region continue undiminished and unabated. Ian Storey, in a recent Bulletin for the Center for a New American Security, reviews the sources of the tensions, notes the previous unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to ease or resolve disputes in the region, and offers recommendations for future diplomatic efforts.

In late 2012, Storey notes, the Secretary General of ASEAN cautioned that the disputes and rivalries in the South China Sea "could become as destabilizing for Asia as Palestine has been for the Middle East." Storey identifies and explores "five underlying drivers of instability in the region."

  • Popular nationalism concerning sovereignty over islands in the sea, especially disputes among China, Vietnam, and the Philippines;
  • Jurisdictional claims by countries through national legislation, administrative fiat, and demonstrations of military power and force;
  • Competition for the sea's natural resources, including fisheries and energy sources;
  • Militarization of regional disputes, especially by China;
  • Growing competition between the U.S. and China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Storey notes that past conflict management efforts by ASEAN and China have failed to decrease tensions or resolve disputes because they were non-bonding and toothless, but his proposed diplomatic solution is essentially more of the same plus a recommendation that the U.S. seek to reassure China that it is not seeking to contain its ambitions in the region and in Asia.

Geopolitical realities and national interests, not "codes of conduct," will determine the policies of China, the United States, and other regional powers. As China continues to rise, it is likely that the U.S. and lesser powers in the region will implement a policy of "containment," perhaps disguised as a "code of conduct."bluestar

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