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Anarchy in the South China Sea

Rommel Banlaoi

MANILA, Philippines—To peacefully manage the complex territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS), Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. Del Rosario urgently calls for the promotion of a “rules-based regime” that can transform SCS “from an area of dispute to a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship, and Cooperation (ZoPFF/C).” This concept of a “rules-based regime” aims to uphold the strict implementation of international law, which in the context of the SCS disputes, refers primarily to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Creation of this type of regime also necessitates the urgent adoption of a binding Code of Conduct (COC), which is considered to be the next logical step after the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). In other words, the proposal of Del Rosario all boils down to the need to uphold the rule of law , rather than the use of force, to peacefully settle the territorial disputes in the SCS. While there is no doubt that the idea of a rule of law has become a maxim in any civilized society where “no one is above the law,” its meaning varies among nations with different political traditions. There is no precise definition of a rule of law even in a mature democracy where conflicts are managed without the use of force. The application of a rule of law is all the more problematic when applied in inter-state politics where there is the utter absence of a government that can enforce laws and peacefully manage disputes among sovereign states in a manner found in domestic politics. In short, there is anarchy in international relations—a grim reality also found in the SCS. Anarchy in the SCS does not mean total chaos or sheer disorder marred by violence, although that can happen. Anarchy is a mirror of a type of order in international politics where there is no central or “sovereign” authority above sovereign states. Under international anarchy, the sovereign is the state, which is independent and autonomous pursuing its own selfish interests. But how can we manage the SCS disputes in the condition of international anarchy? The proposal of Del Rosario represents a school of thought in international relations that sovereign states can, in fact, cooperate in the condition of anarchy. Through cooperation, sovereign states can prevent war among them despite their existing differences. Cooperation promises peace dividends which sovereign states can benefit from. Will it work? Called a “Regime Theory in International Relations,” it posits that sovereign states can establish the habit cooperation by creating a regime, which Stephen Krasner (an international relations theorist) describes as “a set of explicit or implicit principles, norms, rules, and decision making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue-area.” Regime creates a standard of behavior that facilitates inter-state cooperation. Regime guarantees states to cooperate and co-exist peacefully in the condition of anarchy. Key to the application of a regime theory in peacefully managing the SCS dispute is the issue on whether the expectations of all relevant players in the conflict are in fact converging. Disagreements of

claimants on some important details of the proposed COC strongly indicate that there is still a great divergence rather than convergence of expectations among parties to the conflict. While a regime theory provides a benign solution to international conflicts, which is found in the condition of anarchy, it is advanced more seriously by states with limited military means to advance their national interests. States with greater military wherewithal to advance their national interests would hesitate to be bound by a “regime” if it would affect its advantageous position in the relative distribution of power in international politics. Regime does not have independent power over sovereign states, particularly those considered as major powers. Powerful states are motivated to be part of the regime if it would serve their economic, political, and security interests. Major powers would opt out of the regime if it starts to limit their powers and alter their status in international politics. In case of the SCS dispute, a rules-based regime will only be viable if it will not be used against a major power—China, the only major power among the claimants in the SCS. If a proposed “rules-based regime” in the SCS has the intention of “containing” China and “bind” China by the “rules of the weak,” China will enormously go against the creation of that regime. But if that rules-based regime recognizes China’s peaceful rise as a major power and acknowledges China’s important role in maintaining peace and stability in the SCS without necessarily “constricting” its power ascendancy, China will in fact the major champion of that regime. If truth be known, the issue of war and peace in the SCS largely depends on China’s current and future behavior. The promotion of a rules-based regime in the SCS must be presented in a way that it will not be misconstrued as “anti-China” so that the problem anarchy in the SCS will provide the prospects for peace, stability and prosperity for all.

CATEGORY: Commentary, Defense & Security, Foreign Affairs, Rommel Banlaoi, Sectors, Voices
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  1. Richard Delos Reyes says:

    Any proposal that will run counter to the interest of China will be perceived by Beijing as anti-China. I really do not know if Banlaoi is pro-China or anti-China but this article gives me an impression that the author is pro-China. We need a rule of law in the South China Sea because the use of force will not help and China has to accept that. Otherwise, China will become a real bully in the Spratly.

  2. I think this article does not show that Prof. Banlaoi is pro-China; in my opinion, he only believes that the presence of China in the SCS conflict must be carefully considered in establishing a rules-based regime.
    I agree that any threat against the major power involved in the SCS conflict would result to a longer stalemate or, worse, a manifestation of power that will put the other players into a disadvantage. China should be engaged, in a peaceful/non-threatening way, for it to find regional cooperation regarding SCS conflict more attractive.

  3. David Lee says:

    I don’t think the author is Pro-China but he should be Pro-Filipino and having read some of his published articles in the United States, I think Banlaoi is pro-US. I heard his group was or being funded by the Institute of Defense Analysis based in Washington DC. I also heard from my friends here in Hong Kong that his group co-organized an international conference in Manila with the funding of the US-based Center of International and Strategic Studies. No Chinese scholar was invited in this conference. Based on the framework of analysis that he used, the author is Pro-Western. As an overseas Chinese, my lament is that most scholars studying China’s international behavior uses Western analysis that puts China’s foreign policy out of context. The title “Anarchy in the South China Sea” is very strong and paints a negative impression of the situation in the area. The South China Sea remains peaceful and stable where ships can navigate freely. The controversial incidents in the Reed Bank and May Douglas Bank involving China’s ships must be understood in the context of China’s desire to patrol its maritime territories.

  4. Rvl Gimenez says:

    I am not optimistic about it as solution to the problem. At least, it won’t serve Philippine interests whether the regime be power-, interest- or cognitive, or, all of the above in an environment of anarchy. The dice are loaded in favor of China and regime negotiations will not even be anywhere close to being “anti-China” but largely on the extent that the regime can be made “pro-China”. I can see other claimants such as Vietnam (which is flexing its naval muscles as this is written) and others (even Brunei) making a go at lessening the extent of China’s dominance and ensuring that their own interests are fairly well served. But I cannot see how the Philippines can do the same. The Philippines will have to give up a lot to get a little, if it gets anything at all. My best bet is that it will be allowed to crow that it is a “peer” of China and the rest with its survival assured and its claim intact, nothing else. Not even substance to all that crowing.

    In school yards all over the world, weaklings who become members of bullies’ gangs for protection or survival(or whatever other self-interests) can boast of membership although all they do is run errands and, periodically, get smacked for whatever reason or none. Such is the regime of gangs and…

  5. Rommel Banlaoi says:

    Thanks to all who commented!

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