Abstract of The Risk of Applying Realpolitik in Resolving the South China Sea Dispute: Possible Implications on Regional Security. by Renato De Castro

Monday, 26 December 2011 05:59 quanghung299

Located in the heart of Southeast Asia, the South China Sea is a semi-enclosed sea surrounded by China and several smaller and weaker Southeast Asian powers such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.  Since the mid-1970s, these littoral states have been locked in a chronic competition as each one seek to extend its sovereignty and jurisdictional claims over more than a hundred islets, reefs, and rocks and their surrounding waters.  The biggest among the claimant states, China has shown propensity to use coercive diplomacy and even actual force to pursue its territorial claims.   In 1974, its forces drove the South Vietnamese from the Paracel Islands north of the Spratlys. Then in 1988, Chinese forces dislodged Vietnamese forces from Johnson Reef, after they sunk three Vietnamese trawlers near Fiery Cross Reef.  China’s promulgation of a territorial law claiming a large portion of the South China Sea in 1992, and Manila’s discovery of Chinese military structures on Mischief Reef in 1995 triggered a serious diplomatic row between the Philippines and China in the mid-1990s.


The South China Sea dispute, however,  hibernated in the late 1990s and early 21st century after China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).  China then conducted its charm offensive in Southeast Asia as it cleverly used economic largess to deepen its ties with the ASEAN member states.  Interestingly, a noted American academic warily observes that “the history of China’s diplomacy in South China Sea competition is one of declarations of cooperation followed by unilateral acts revising the status quo followed by new declarations of cooperation.”[1] This observation proved prophetic as the dispute flared up again in 2009 when China assumed an assertive posture and began consolidating its jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea by expanding its military reach and pursuing coercive diplomacy against other claimant states.[2]

Since 2008, China increased its naval patrols (using submarines, survey ships, and surface combatants) in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and territorial waters, and intimidated foreign oil companies that tried to operate in the South China Sea.[3] On 2 March 2011, two Chinese maritime surveillance boats harassed and ordered a Philippine survey ship to leave the Reed Bank (also called Recto Reed), which is 80 kilometers from the Philippine western-most island of Palawan.  The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs filed a diplomatic protest before the Chinese Embassy in Manila on 5 March, and claimed China to date has provoked five to seven incidents in the South China Sea.[4]  Vietnam also complained about Chinese activities in its EEZ and accused Chinese patrol boats of harassing an oil-exploration ship conducting a seismic survey 120 kilometers (80 miles) off the Vietnamese coast.  On 28 May and 9 June 2011, Chinese patrol boats cut the cables of Vietnamese oil exploration ships.  Claiming that the two incidents happened within its EEZ, Vietnam filed a diplomatic protest against China. In the face of these two ASEAN states’ diplomatic protests, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson arrogantly declared that “China has undisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters.”[5]  These Chinese unilateral actions are perceived as testing the resolve of the other claimant states in the South China Sea dispute.  Consequently, they generated tension in the region and set China on a collision course with two ASEAN member-states. 

This paper examines the implications of China’s realpolitik approach in resolving the South China Sea dispute on regional security and stability.  It specifically raises the question—what are the implications of China’s realpolitik approach in resolving the South China Sea dispute on an evolving East Asian regional complex?  It also addresses the following corollary questions: What is the legal basis of China’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea?  What are the realpolitik tactics China is applying in pursuit of its territorial claims in the South China Sea?  How are the other claimant states reacting to China’s realpolitik approach?  And what will be the long-term implication of China’s realpolitik approach in resolving the South China Sea dispute?

Territorial Dispute, Realpolitik, and Conflict

Territorial disputes have been recurring phenomena in international relations, and have a constant cause of conflicts among states.  Territorial disputes are triggered by two situations:[6]  a) two states disagree over where their territory or borders should be delimited; and b) one state challenges the right of other states to exercise any sovereign rights over some or all its homeland or colonial or maritime territory. In both cases, however, two or more states seek control of and sovereignty over the same territory.  Territorial disputes, however, do not automatically lead to war.  Rather, they provide the necessary, not the sufficient, conditions for armed conflict to occur among states.  They provide the necessary condition for two reasons: a) Instead of being the actual triggers of armed conflict, territorial disputes produce a sequence of events that may or may not lead to war. They do lead to war if the claimant states apply realpolitik tactic that increase the chances for the outbreak of armed conflicts.  Power politics or realpolitik is not the only way to settle territorial disputes, and if this approach is avoided, war is not inevitable.[7] And b) if claims over the disputed territory are settled amicably at one point in the history of the claimant states, it is unlikely that armed conflict will break out between two contiguous states regardless of other issues that may be generated in the future. This means that territorial disputes are of causal significance in a way their existence makes armed conflict a possibility not an eventuality.[8]  As one study notes: “territory and borders (disputes) do not cause wars, they at least create structure of risks and opportunities in which confliction behavior is apparently more likely to occur.” [9]

A sufficient condition that can generate militarized conflicts is if the disputing states apply realpolitik or power politics tactics in resolving their contention.  Realpolitik or power politic approach is defined as foreign policy actions based on the image of the world as insecure and anarchic which consequently leads to distrust, struggles for power, national interest taking precedence over norms, rules, and collective interests, the use of Machiavellian stratagems, coercion, attempts to balance of power, reliance on self-help, and the use of force and war as the ultimo ratio of international relations.[10] Accordingly, the application of realpolitik by any claimant state can cause territorial disputes to become militarized conflicts because it provides the conditions disputing states can be expected to engage in a contention, not necessarily the prescribed behavior is natural or inherent given the structure of reality.   Power politics becomes a guide that directs policy-makers (and their societies) to the appropriate behavior given the situation—a territorial dispute—and given the realities of international relations.[11]  The realpolik approach to territorial dispute involves the reliance on the test of power—through conquest, forcible submission, or deterrence of the other parties.  It is also deemed as a form of particularistic policy based on unilateral actions that cause confrontations among disputing states and consequently, armed conflict.[12]

The realpolitik approach, however,is only one of the means of resolving territorial dispute.   Another approach is through compromise, third party mediation or arbitration, or adjudication of some sort.[13]  Collectively, these measures can be called the liberal-institutional approach.  The liberal institutional approach proscribes the resolution of conflict through negotiation, bargaining, and debates that eventually lead to problem-solving rather than contention.  Accordingly, the application of this approach can effectively manage crises and/or reduce tensions in disputes.  Furthermore, it also creates rules and norms that create mutual expectations about the general standard of behavior  that not only control escalation if crises should develop, but pushes states to deal with disputes by making them try certain actions before turning toward more drastic actions prescribed by the realpolitik approach.  This approach attempts to reduce and eliminate certain types of state policy or behavior, particularly the unilateral or realpolitik actions, while creating certain preferred means of conflict management or resolution.  This approach is considered as a way of interacting that reduces the possibility of war, even in the presence of a conflict.[14]



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[1]Donald Weatherbee, International Relations in Southeast Asia: The Struggle for Autonomy (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2009). p. 146.

[2]Clive Schofield and Ian Storey, The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes and Rising Tension (Washington Dc: The Jamestown Foundation, November 2009). p. 1.

[3]Michale A. Glony “Getting Beyond Taiwan? Chinese Foreign Policy and PLA Modernization, “Strategic Forum No. 261 (January 2011). p. 5.

[4]“China Says Philippines Harming Sovereignty, Interests in Spratlys,”BBC Monitoring Asia-Pacific,” BBC Monitoring Asia-Pacific (9 June 2011). pp. 1-6.  http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=64did=2369715781&Src...

[5]See Edward Wong, “China Navy Reaches Far, Unsettling the Region,” NewYork Times (15 June 20110).  p. 3.  http://proquest.imi.com/pqdweb?index=107&did=2374566911&Sr...

[6]Paul K. Huth, “Why Are Territorial Disputes between States a Central Cause of International Conflict?” in What Do we Know about War? (Ed) John Vasquez (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000). p. 86.

[7]John Vasquez, The War Puzzle (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993). p 124.

[8]Ibid.p. 124.

[9]Paul R. Hensel, “Theory and Evidence on Geography and Conflict,” in What Do we Know about War? (Ed) John Vasquez (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000).p. 61.

[10]Vasquez, op. cit. p. 86.

[11]Ibid. p. 87.

[12]Ibid. p. 269.

[13]Bruce Russett and Harvey Starr, World Politics: The Menu of Choice (USA: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1996). pp. 143-144.

[14]Vasquez, op. cit. p. 271.

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