It is not unusual for countries to resist multilateral interventions in resolving their territorial disputes. India, to give an example, has always held that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of its territory and if it at all Pakistan has anything to “discuss”, it is a bilateral issue between the two countries. It has always decried any efforts to bring in other countries on the issue. China is now doing something similar with respect to the South China Sea, a wide oceanic swath that it claims for itself. It is an issue that poses an intriguing question: what happens when territorial disputes involve a number of countries and not just two?
On Monday, Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister Pham Quang Vinh said there was no end in sight to the dispute. Earlier in the year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) had tried to push for a “multilateral code of conduct” for the South China Sea but to no avail. It has been speculated that because of a decadal leadership transition in China, its leaders are simply unwilling to proceed in the matter.
Beijing, instead, wants to engage in bilateral negotiations with countries involved. The area is subject to disputed claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. The aim of Chinese diplomacy is to use the country’s immense strength to force a “resolution” with individual countries. This is well-known to these countries and, hence, their efforts at a “multilateral code of conduct”.
This is unlikely to lead to any durable, or just, solution. A much better approach will be to go in for international arbitration—say under a distinguished jurist or an expert in international or maritime law—to resolve this issue. In any case,
China’s claim to this territory that abuts many countries in the region is, on the face of it, questionable.
The issue here is whether the so-called global community will pay heed to what is a rather one-sided affair at the moment.
Beijing is simply unwilling to an approach that can yield a solution while the other countries are simply powerless to cope with their increasingly powerful and assertive neighbour.
How can the dispute over the South China Sea be resolved?