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'More than economics'

Hans Spross / Richard Connor
November 15, 2012

Where the South China Sea dispute between China and members of the ASEAN power bloc is concerned, there appears to be no easy solution. But, a code of conduct might be the first step toward finding one.

Dr. Gerhard Will. (Photo: SWP)
Image: SWP

Deutsche Welle: Have there been any developments with regards to the South China Sea since the last ASEAN summit in July?

Gerhard Will: There has been a fair amount of change. A number of talks have been held behind the scenes after the debacle at the last ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, where no joint declaration was issued. Meanwhile the ASEAN countries have given a six-point declaration of how such a code of conduct might look. As we have heard, there were discussions with China at an official level.

Would such a code of conduct reduce the military tension in the South China Sea?

Not necessarily. It may well be the case that the parties adopt such a code of conduct while at the same time making it clear they will not rule out any military option and that they are arming themselves accordingly.

How do you view China's role in efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the territorial dispute?

Chinese leadership knows very well that it should not push too far in the dispute with its neighbors in Southeast Asia. One needs good relations with one's neighbors to promote further economic development. There are two sides of the same coin: On the one hand, territorial sovereignty along with natural resources is an issue. On the other hand, it's also important to have peace in the region. So it is not unlikely that China would agree to such a code of conduct - one that would have no fixed rules but instead would be a list of behavioral guidelines.

A code of conduct would not mean China would give up its territorial claim; it would ensure that the status quo is maintained. So China might well agree to such a code without having to give up crucial elements of its position.

What is the significance of the territorial dispute for the ASEAN countries?

Some of the ASEAN countries are trying to use this conflict to bring about a greater cohesion between the ASEAN nations. Conversely, China is trying to do all that it can to frustrate these attempts and prevent a common stance among ASEAN countries from emerging. I would say that this dispute has a central importance within ASEAN, as, ultimately, it is all about relations with China. This is an issue that concerns all ASEAN countries.

Do you think the joint exploitation of natural resources in the South China Sea is nothing more than a utopian ideal?

I would not call it utopian. I would go as far as to say that it is probably the only peaceful solution to the dispute. China itself has repeatedly suggested joint exploration and development of projects. So far though, there have not been any projects where that would have worked. However, assuming that reason and economic factors are taken into consideration, joint resource management is the only way to solve the dispute. I think the idea that this conflict can be solved by drawing boundaries and setting up exclusive economic zones is utopian - who would control such long borders? Where borders exist, there will always be conflict.

How dangerous is the dispute?

It is indeed a very dangerous thing because it is not just about economic interests. If it were only about that, then, in my opinion, there would be a solution sooner or later. However, it is also about political legitimacy of the governments involved. The governments have to prove to the people that they are representing national interests. That goes just as much for China as it does for Vietnam and the Philippines. That is the aspect of domestic politics. But there is also the strategic dimension - the rivalry between China and the US in the South China Sea. That is really what makes the dispute so difficult - various participants in the conflict are interlinked with one another with regards to economic issues, domestic politics and the strategic interests of superpowers.

Dr Gerhard Will is a Southeast Asia expert with Berlin's German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

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