MANILA, Philippines – Despite the current security tensions that can increase the risks of war due to clash of sovereignties in the Spratlys, peace and stability is still the way ahead in this contested body water.
There are four major reasons why.
First, all claimants, namely Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have all agreed to manage the disputes in the Spratlys peacefully. Though all sovereign states have the right to use force when their vital national interests are threatened, the use of force to settle international disputes is no longer the norm in international politics.
The principle of peaceful settlement of inter-state conflicts is embodied in the Charter of the United Nations (UN), in which all sovereign states are members of. The UN has also provided various mechanisms for the peaceful settlement of international disputes in order to ameliorate the security dilemma of states in the condition of international anarchy.
The 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea or DOC also articulates the maxim of pacific settlement of disputes. Although the DOC is non-binding for just being a declaration, all claimants refer to it when problems arise in the South China Sea.
Second, we now live in the era of globalization where all sovereign states have become so interconnected through commerce, trade, and tourism. This interconnectedness is evident in the South China Sea through international navigation.
It is already well known that the South China Sea is one of the busiest sea routes in the world. In fact, the South China Sea is a maritime superhighway with at least 50,000 ships passing through its sea-lanes annually. Thus, waging a war in the Spratlys is costly for claimants and counter-productive for all states depending on the freedom of navigation in the area.
Third, though claimants are presently upgrading their military capabilities, they are not designed to invade other states or to occupy already occupied features in the Spratlys. They are designed to increase their capabilities to protect their occupied features and to patrol the waters covering them. They are also designed to deter other claimants to make new occupations as required by the DOC.
If claimants have overlapping waters to patrol, they can sort our their differences through negotiations, either bilaterally or multilaterally.
Acquisition of submarines, frigates, corvettes, and offshore patrol vessels by claimants are not meant to support an “invasion” force. They are being acquired to primarily confront the growing non-traditional security threats in the maritime domain such as piracy and armed robbery against ships, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, human trafficking and international terrorism. Without those naval assets, “internal waters” and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of claimants will be prone to abuse by non-traditional sources of security threats. The current tensions in the Spratlys gave claimants a strong justification before their taxpayers to increase national budget for naval acquisitions.
Finally, the current tensions in the Spratlys are in fact blessings in disguise. Through the current tensions, claimants are able to express their strategic intentions, something that were not expressed before.
The current tensions gave all claimants a better understanding of the disputes and their respective national positions on the issue. With this understanding, claimants will be more circumspect and nuanced in dealing with each other in order to avoid a war in the Spratlys.
If there are claimants anticipating an inter-state war in the Spratlys, they have not come to grips with the reality of globalization and complex interdependence of nations. They will become a pariah state whose behavior is not in sync with international norms of peaceful behavior.