Some reflections on the dilemma in South China Sea

opinion July 23, 2012 00:00

By Apichai Sunchindah
Special to

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The latest flare-up in tensions on the South China Sea issue was demonstrated both on-site in the form of physical stand-off between the ships, military and otherwise, of some claimant states in the disputed islets and waters as well as most worryingly sp


ASEAN was established back in 1967 during the height of the Cold War engulfing Southeast Asia where countries in the region were aligned with different superpowers. Coincidentally, that was the year when the movie “The Graduate” was released and became a great hit at that time. It was a story of a young man who just graduated from university and was entangled in a triangular love-hate relationship and being pulled and tossed around like in a power play game.  The movie also produced some well-known theme songs that endured over time and interestingly, one of them is “Scarborough Fair” which is a traditional British ballad relating the story of a young man who asks the listener to tell his former lover to perform for him a series of impossible tasks and his lover doing likewise to him in return. 
The South China Sea dilemma could be viewed in such a light. In fact, some ten years ago, ASEAN and China had agreed to a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea which spelled out the measures to be taken to address such disputed territorial claims, with the aim of leading eventually to the adoption of a more legally binding code of conduct. Unfortunately, in the recent incidents and latest events pertaining to this issue, the concerned parties had not strictly adhered to the letter or the spirit of the Declaration. The agreed modus operandi for addressing any differences and disputes was to undertake friendly dialogue and consultations through peaceful and constructive means thereby generating mutual understanding, building trust, promoting good neighborliness and engendering fruitful cooperation.  
Indonesia, by virtue it of being a key member country in ASEAN and a non-claimant state to the disputed area in question, had already launched a diplomatic offensive to contain the fallout from the recent impasse. In fact, Indonesia did a similar act some two decades ago when the South China Sea problem was heating up among the claimant states back then, and played an honest broker role of bringing the disputing parties to the discussion table through what is known as a Track 2 Chatham House rules approach. With assistance from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) at that time, a series of informal South China Sea workshops were convened to address the various shared concerns, starting from the least contentious ones first. These incremental steps that were taken eventually culminated in the signing of the earlier stated Declaration a decade ago. Perhaps some similar type of initiative would be needed now to quickly defuse the tensions and then try to restore the trust and confidence that has been badly damaged.
Nobody is a winner in this latest high stakes power struggle game.  All concerned parties should therefore be brought back to the negotiation table as soon as possible to find ways to resolve the common challenges together in a spirit of equality, mutual respect and cooperation. The Chinese word for crisis consists of two characters – one signaling danger and the other opportunity. It is hoped that a sense of urgency and equanimity would eventually prevail to give peaceful and amicable resolution of this potential conflict situation a reasonable chance of success. What would ultimately be needed is perhaps as Jane Austen, the English writer, would have put it, - conducting affairs with less “Pride and Prejudice” and with more “Sense and Sensibility”.