Stirring up the South China Sea (III): A Fleeting Opportunity for Calm

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Law enforcement personnels examine passing ships with telescopes on the patrol vessel Haixun-21 on the South China Sea in south China, 21 April 2015. AFP/Guo Qiuda


Stirring up the South China Sea (III):
A Fleeting Opportunity for Calm

Beijing/Manila/Hanoi/Jakarta/Singapore/Brussels: The South China Sea is the cockpit of geopolitics in East Asia. Five countries – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – plus Taiwan have substantial and competing territorial and maritime claims in a body of water that is both an important source of hydrocarbons and fisheries and a vital trade corridor. The recent history has been scarred by cycles of confrontation. Today, the clashes are becoming more heated, and the lulls between periods of tension are growing shorter. As the region continues to grow in influence and power, the handling of the competing claims will set the tone for relations within East Asia for years. The cost of even a momentary failure to manage tensions could pose a significant threat to one of the world’s great collaborative economic success stories. Despite China’s controversial development of some of the reefs it controls, the current relatively low temperature of the disagreement offers a chance to break the cycle, but it is likely to be short-lived. The countries of the region, supported by the wider international community, need to embrace the opportunity while it lasts.

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Geopolitics around the South China Sea are shaped by alternating cycles of confrontation and relative calm. As flare-ups become more frequent and lulls grow shorter, China and ASEAN are converging on the importance of preventing and managing incidents at sea, but need to move beyond agreements on formalities and focus on implementation.
Yanmei Xie, Senior Analyst, China @YanmeiXie

Yanmei Xie
Tim Johnston

Beijing remains committed to consolidating its claims but is mindful of the cost to its peripheral relations. Regional stakeholders should harness China’s desire to avert another major deterioration in relations. ASEAN is primed to intensify the push for a Code of Conduct that commits parties to behavioural norms, reduces frictions and manages incidents.
Tim Johnston, Director, Asia Program @TimAlexJohn

Jean-Marie Guéhenno

South East Asian countries urgently need to find ways to revive their fading confidence in China’s sincerity and raise ASEAN’s capability and credibility. The best way to go beyond talk of building confidence is to implement real, effective crisis management mechanisms, especially at sea.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President & CEO @JGuehenno






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