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Writing Security in the South China Sea

Daojiong Zha

International Studies Association Conference
Los Angeles, California
March 2000

International Students Association


The author wishes to acknowledge the generous research support provided by the International University of Japan (, which made it possible for field research trips to Manila, the Philippines and Hainan, China, as well as the trip to Los Angeles for the International Studies Association 2000 Convention.



The history of military conflict plays an important role in International Relations (IR) research focus on a given geographical area. In post-Cold War East Asia, the two geographical areas that have attracted much global scholarly attention are the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. Compared with the Korean Peninsula, where since a war broke out in the 1950s North Korean and South Korean, American troops have continued to be ready to re-enter active warfare, the South China Sea has been a much more peaceful area. In the South China Sea, the most notable post-WWII exception to peace was the brief naval clashes between China and Vietnam in 1974 and 1988. Scholarly and policy focus on potential conflicts in the South China Sea, however, has gone unabated. Then, what makes the South China Sea so attractive to academic and policy concerns about security in East Asia?

This research note attempts to make meaning of concerns about security in the South China Sea, an area of relative peace for the past half century. It does so through a re-reading of the conventional IR literature about the subject matter and analyzing the case of tensions between China and the Philippines over Mischief Reef Island in the Spratly island group of the South China Sea. As later parts of the paper shall illustrate, the China-Philippines dispute exemplifies the ways through which lack of “national security” is manufactured. The purpose of my inquiry, however, is different from the conventional considerations of maritime territorial disputes. I shall aim to highlight the clash of national identities in the search for “security” that has dominated security discourses about East Asia in general and the South China Sea in particular.

As is true with research on “national security” throughout the history of IR research, the term begins with acceptance of the notion of the nation-state, in spite of its ambiguity in definition and scope of reference. Since in the conduct of state-to-state relations existence of one state comes through acceptance by another (group of) state(s) it interacts with, the legitimacy of a state and all it claims to represent is throughout history a contentious matter. Among those areas of contention, the geographical scope of policing the populations and resources by a state is probably the most profound one. The South China Sea provides an excellent case of such contentions. For centuries the South China Sea remained stateless. Occupation of the islands and atolls dotting its waters was at best a minor issue of concern to the European colonizers in the 17 th through early 20 th centuries, whose main interest lay in continental East Asia. It began to affect the evolution of inter-state relations in East Asia only after the end of colonization first by European powers and later the brief occupation by Japan in the 1940s. A comprehensive understanding of the South China Sea in East Asian inter-state relations will necessarily involve a reading and rereading of the history of colonization of the area. But to accomplish that task requires a much lengthier project, which is beyond the scope of this paper.

The rest of this paper begins with a review of mainstream security literature about the South China Sea. This review is meant to highlight how conceptualizations of “security” have made possible the promotion of a relatively peaceful area into one of grave security/threat concerns. The second part of the paper is an analysis of the China-Philippines dispute over Mischief Reef, which brings us back full circle to appraising the contradictions of conventional understanding of “security”. A summary is provided in the third part.


Security Literature on the South China Sea: a review

The amount of academic literature on the South China Sea as a security concern is too voluminous to be reviewed comprehensively. Barry Buzan’ s identification of a “security complex” provides a useful tool for us to begin to sort out some major streams in such concerns. For Buzan, a security complex is a “group of states whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securities cannot be realistically considered apart from one another.” From a conventional perspective, such a conceptualization departs from recognition of the multiplicity of interactions among territories that border each other and leads to arguments for the creation of a regional cooperative security mechanism to handle regional “common” security concerns. A different angle to understand the same phenomenon is that a “security complex” provides each individual nation-state a convenient means of identifying threats to its “national security” simply by virtue of being in the same neighborhood of other nation-states. Granted, issues such as trans-border crossing of migrant labor and smuggling do pose challenges to the effective management of nation-statehood. The question is whether or not by just being in the neighborhood of another nation-state one must conceive the other of a (potential) threat. In other words, the notion of a security complex itself can lead to manufacturing of threats from the geographical near-abroad, however real and/or imagined those threats are.

In East Asia, the end of the Cold War in many ways created an ample opportunity for states to search for new definitions of security. During the Cold War the primary threat was considered to come from Communism, first Soviet and Chinese, and later Vietnamese. Fear of Communism and the so-called “domino effect” of Communist forces sweeping continental Asia from its northeastern corner of North Korea to Indo-China led to the Vietnam War and the establishment of an American forward troops deployment throughout the region. Out of that collective fear emerged a collaborative response: the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1957. Creation of ASEAN represents a concrete example of how the security complex in the Southeast Asian region was constructed. It came into formation on the conviction that Communism had to be stopped before it could be allowed to spread to other parts of Southeast Asia. Although for many years ASEAN member states could comfortably nestle under the American military umbrella, Vietnam’ s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 gave ASEAN a new life. However, ASEAN’s significance in mitigating disputes among its members was still limited to that of a complement to American military agendas in the region.

Entering the 1980s, China’ s march away from orthodox socialism lessened the fear of China somewhat. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, China was so much part of the global capitalist project that it, for a while, was a threat to the “community of civilized nations” almost exclusively due to international recognition of human rights violations by the Chinese government. In other words, the Chinese threat was for a while more related to Western ideals of civilization and governance. On that score, ASEAN states had more in common with China in championing the notion of an “Asian Way” to civilization, as opposed to accepting the “end of history” proposition as was advanced by Francis Fukuyama.

Identification of a Chinese threat to ASEAN gained momentum in the early 1990s. From a Realist perspective, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a power vacuum, i.e., end of the “long peace” assured by superpower competition for spheres of influence in Southeast Asia. The only candidate that was seen as capable of challenging the American military predominance is China. When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in 1993 changed their accounting methods and estimated the size of the Chinese economy to be the third largest in the world, Realist thinking gained a significant boost: China was now considered more capable than ever of furthering its territorial ambitions. Given the “new” power matrix in East Asia, there was no other party that was more vulnerable than Southeast Asian states.

The “rise” of China and the termination of U.S. military bases in the Philippines, then, intensified the search for new sources of threat. The construction of a Southeast Asian security complex conveniently centered on the South China Sea. For the sake of clarity, the following paragraphs shall re-construct the security/threat discourse about the South China Sea by grouping it into three sub-categories: geographical, military, and energy. Knowledge of these dimensions of security concerns can help us understand why the area commands so much attention in academic research and foreign policy making.

Geographical security/threat

The key difference between the South China Sea as a geographical area in the modern nation-state system and the rest of those areas whose sovereignty is also contested is that there had been no permanent population inhabiting any of those islets. For thousands of years, the only group of human population that crisscrosses the South China Sea waters on a daily basis is the fishermen from the coastal communities along the rim of the South China Sea. Furthermore, most of the thousands of atolls are submerged under water during high tide. Since the 1950s, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have each stationed troops and built boundary markers as well as weather observation stations on those islands where such construction is possible during low tide. Since international law does not recognize such military presence as constituting permanent population, the addition of such manmade features to the geography of the South China Sea only serves to demarcate unilateral claims to sovereignty. Each company to the dispute demands that the other claimants correct their (recent) historical wrongs by removing their structures/markers before negotiations for a permanent solution can start. In other words, each party demands the other parties’ recognition of the legitimacy of its own past behaviors and recognizing their own mistakes in the recent past. That creates a never-ending drama of diplomatic brinksmanship.

If there are no permanent populations residing on the disputed islands in the South China Sea, then who are the various militaries supposed to protect? In other words, what is the significance of the geographical features that so many states invest to guard? For the states that are direct parties to the dispute, the paramount purpose of such behaviors is, clearly, to underline the seriousness of their claims to ownership of a vast maritime area that belonged to no party in the first place. Changes to the natural geography, then, provide yet another piece of “evidence” about the extension of nation-statehood to the South China Sea oceans as well as threats to the legitimacy of the nation-statehood such manmade structures are meant to represent.

Nonetheless the ocean water-lanes are important to states outside the South China Sea area as well. To the south, the Straits of Malacca connect the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. To the north, the Taiwan Straits connects the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean. These geographical connections have made the South China Sea significant for European and American military and commercial adventures to East Asia for centuries. The evaporation of Imperial Japan’ s dream of dominating the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere led to the closure of a final chapter of colonization of the South China Sea by major powers far away from the area. However, the growth of commercial trade between Western United States, Japan and the Middle East since the end of the Second World War has brought Japan back into the South China Sea as well. For, the sealanes through the South China Sea water areas are considered vital to Japanese business interests due to the transportation of oil and other raw materials essential for maintaining their economic growth.

The United States government has repeatedly defined freedom of international navigation one key aspect of its security concerns. For the United States government, such freedom also includes that for the warships of the United States navy. Given the history of United States military involvement in East Asia, U.S. demands for innocent passage (i.e., without having to inform the governments of countries immediately bordering the ocean) of its warships is usually used as an assurance that none of the Asian governments can have the right to demand it.

As such, the geography of the South China Sea area means that its legal ownership and the right to use it is open for contention not just for the countries that directly border the water areas alone. Outside powers such as the U.S. and Japanese governments are equally important actors in the dispute due to their identification of possible threats to commercial and military interests. By making the most sweeping claim of ownership, China is often identified as the threat to the freedom of international navigation. But so far, by not taking “any action that even hints at any kind of interference with navigation,” “has not given the United States sufficient provocation to get involved in [managing] the Spratlys dispute.” To realist IR scholars, however, that history is hardly any assurance. The future, i.e., the unknown about China’ s actions in the future, provides an ample cause for keeping the freedom of navigation issue alive. In this connection, through highlighting “threat to security” from China, mainstream literature helps to perpetuate the continuation of the low-intensity conflict in the South China Sea.


Strategic Security

If the geography-driven identification of threat to security of international commercial and military navigation in the South China Sea area illustrates a drive to be prepared for the future, then the identification of the “strategic balance of power” in the South China Sea region is more about the present. In recent years, numerous journal articles have been written to analyze the strategic implications of the South China Sea territorial disputes. Representative of this stream of literature is David Winterford’s proposition that after the end of the Cold War “a visible reconfiguration of the regional security balance as Asian powers seek to enter what they see as a window of opportunity arising from a shrinking superpower presence in the Asian-Pacific region.” Such a statement is based on at least two assumptions.

First, the superpowers (i.e., the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War) placed the South China Sea as a central area of contention. This, however, is untrue of history. During the Cold War, the superpowers’ competition for influence in Asia was more closely related to land areas than the maritime ones. The United States first controlled Japan and later placed it under its security umbrella. The two Asian wars had to do with the purported competition for ideological influence first in the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam as well as its neighbors Cambodia and Laos. Indeed, during the Cold War, first the United States and after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 the Soviet Union had unlimited access to the South China Sea. U.S. naval ships moved back and forth unchallenged to wage war in Indochina. After the end of the Vietnam war, Soviet naval ships also moved in and out of their base in Cam Rahn Bay (in Vietnam) without having to confront either its number one strategic enemy the United States or its supposed target of strategic encirclement China. Perhaps the most truth-telling testimony of insignificance of the South China Sea in the Cold War superpower competition is the 1974 naval clash between China and South Vietnam over ownership of islets in the Paracels island group. In spite of the pending U.S. withdrawal from its military operations in Vietnam, to follow the conventional logic of strategic thinking, South Vietnam was still a strategic partner of the United States. Were the South China Sea so important to U.S. strategic configurations, the 1974 Chinese action might as well have justified an intensification of its military operations in Vietnam by pointing to the fact that South Vietnam was under attack on land by North Vietnam and at sea by China. But the United States did not.

Terms like “reconfiguration of regional balance of power” and “security vacuum” in the South China Sea area (and indeed, the wider Southeast Asian region), then, romanticize the Cold War. The underling notion seems to be such that without a return of Cold War type of tension in the region, there can be no peace in the South China Sea.

Second and the more revealing of the strategic security stream of logic about the South China Sea area is the notion of Asian powers arising to take over control of the management of security in the South China Sea area. This particular notion leads to calculations about “regional leadership.” Applied to the South China Sea, “leadership” refers to, more than anything else, naval strength - the capacity to project a state’ s power beyond its own land boundaries. The search for that leadership, then, does not necessarily have to be related to the presence of threat to security in the South China Sea area.

When situated in the backdrop of a relatively peaceful history, arguments about threats to security in the South China Sea, then, serve as continuing justifications to maintain the regional military setup. Such a setup centers around the United States-Japan security alliance, whose 1996 revised guidelines authorize the Japanese military to assist U.S. military operations in “surrounding areas.” As an excellent case of deliberate ambiguity, the Japanese military has since forever refused to specify what those “areas” are by referring to them as “situational” rather than “geographical” references. Deliberate ambiguity as a diplomatic tool has worked to keep the Chinese government alert about revival of Japanese military actions in East Asia. This state of affairs, in turn, provides ample space for setting in motion a high drama of “strategic triangle” (the United States, Japan, and China), a metaphor that derives from is the web of relations among the United States, the Soviet Union, and China during the Cold War.


Energy Security

In addition to considerations about strategic balance of power, the South China Sea is closely related to considerations of “energy security”. The notion of “energy security,” as an important component of “economic security”, argues for using diplomatic/military means to secure access to energy resource deposits and transportation of energy, in particular, oil and gas. The significance of South China Sea embodies energy (oil and gas) security concerns for two basic reasons. One, the South China Sea transportation routes are a gateway for oil and natural gas transportation from the Persian Gulf and Indonesian islands to Japan and the United States. Two, the South China Sea itself is an area with potential oil and natural gas deposits in the seabed. For these two reasons, China, according to the Realist logic, would rationally act to influence the use of the South China Sea waters. Hence, the concern over energy security. The significance of transportation was discussed in the previous sections. Suffice to say here that it is the fear of having one power (China in particular) to have legitimate control over access through the waterways than actual hazards for transportation that makes it a security concern.

Regarding the potential oil and gas deposits in the South China Sea seabed, Mark J. Valencia’ s summary of the politics of science is revealing. According to Valencia, China and the Philippines have in recent years made the most optimistic predictions about the oil and gas potential in the South China Sea. International oil companies, which conduct their own geological surveys of the area, are generally pessimistic, partly as a negotiation tactic to extract concessions from governments wishing to materialize their respective claims to territorial sovereignty by entering into joint exploration projects.

In East Asia and other parts of the world, through the granting of hydrocarbon concessions in disputed ocean areas to international oil corporations, a claimant state makes a declaration of its determination to exercise jurisdiction. In addition, by way of such “commercial” acts, such states make use of an international energy operator to assist in resisting diplomatic pressures from other claimant states. Clearly, the diplomatic/political posturing behind such joint exploration deals that in part explains the huge gaps in “scientific findings” of oil and gas deposits in the South China Sea. Indeed, of all the six claimant states, China and the Philippines are most active in pursuing/reiterating their respective claims. It is only natural for predictions made by scientists associated with these two states to be optimistic. The political significance of such predictions lies in that they help to aid their respective governments’ justifications for investing military as well as diplomatic resources to keep their claims (and by extension future access to whatever there lies in the deepwater areas therein) alive.

The notion of “energy security” is at the same time a powerful cognitive tool for Realist researchers to argue for guarding against potential Chinese military actions to solidify its claims to ownership of whatever energy resources there may be in the South China Sea. Such reasoning departs from knowledge about the growth of the Chinese economy and its increasing dependence on “offshore” sources of oil and gas. That dependence, then, can be used as justification for modernizing the Chinese armed forces (and navy in particular), which in turn is meant to first safeguard and then defend Chinese claims to ownership of energy in the deep seabed of the South China Sea. Likewise, arms races by states in the region are either justified or understood through the prism of energy security.

What the Realist logic about “energy security” in the South China Sea downplay in their interpretation of history and the possible future is that the disintegration of the Soviet Union has opened up vast areas of oil deposits in the former Soviet republics for exploration. In addition, OPEC, the only organization with the potential capacity to cause major disruptions to the oil supply market (as it did in the two oil crises of the 1970s), is now so weakened and divided that it is virtually powerless. Finally, the continuation of diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iraq and Iran, the two Gulf oil exporting giants, stands as ample testimony that global oil and gas supply is not facing any imminent threat. Even for China itself, the government’ s oil and gas development strategy for the twenty years to come is to focus on its interior: transporting Central Asian oil and gas to eastern China and exporting gas reserves out of China’ s southwestern Sichuan Province. China does have an interest in exploiting oil and gas deposits in the ocean — the area immediately off the Pearl River Delta.

In short, the promotion of the South China Sea as a priority area of concerns over “energy security” seems to be based less on facts than on preparing for the future unknown, the same logic that leads to arguments for military preparedness. It serves to legitimate military strategies for maintaining/upgrading the arsenals of destruction in the region.


Ignored Threats to Security in the South China Sea

Mainstream/Realist literature on security of the South China Sea area fails to consider threats to security issues that are taking place on a daily basis in the waters whose sovereignty is contested by governments claiming to serve the interests of their peoples. Among other things, security of the fishermen, threats to small-sized operators of international shipping, in addition to pollution of the ocean waters are rarely a concern to Realist researchers.

Fishermen who live along the shores of the South China Sea are also frontier inhabitants of their respective nation-states. As such, their hometowns are often poorly developed. The ocean, then, becomes the only source of income for them. For centuries, unfettered access to the ocean ensures their economic survival. But the modern state system puts their livelihood directly at stake. Maritime boundaries negotiated by diplomats of their national governments restrict their access to traditional fishing grounds. Worse still, they frequently become victims of maritime policing conducted by governments wishing to make a political/diplomatic statement about their resolve to safeguard national sovereignty. A case in point is the sinking of Chinese fishing boats by the Philippines navy gunboats in May 1999. The sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal in the Spratly island group is but one of the many islets over which the Chinese and Philippine governments contest sovereignty over. But to fishermen from the Chinese island province of Hainan, it is but one of the many traditional fishing areas frequented by their ancestors for centuries. Then on May 23 1999, three Philippine Navy ships confronted three Chinese wooden boats and sank one of them. Worse still, the Philippine Navy’s commander accused the Chinese wooden boats of deliberately ramming against the Navy vessels, causing damage to one of the Navy vessels.

During the author’s visit to a fishing community of Hainan Province in August 1999, fishermen were full of stories about the increased dangers associated with making a living at sea. Philippine and Vietnamese maritime patrol police boats routinely make arrests of Chinese fishermen who supposedly crossed their boundary lines. Unless boats are sunk or/and fishermen are killed such incidents go unreported in the media. Making matters worse, the Chinese government prohibits them from taking any action of self-defense; all the government would do is to issue diplomatic protests over the airwaves. Interviews with Chinese maritime control authorities revealed that Vietnamese and Philippine fishermen are the targets of their “law enforcement” activities; separate jail facilities had been constructed in Hainan for such “convicts”. While more research needs to be done to illustrate the extent of “law enforcement” by the governments involved, it is fair to say that for fishing communities along the rim of the South China Sea the ocean that should be their source of food and personal/family security is turned into a sea of terror by their national governments.

Fishermen operating in the South China Sea live under the fear of pirates as well. The ongoing sovereignty disputes prevent effective coordination in fighting against pirates who operate without any recognition of artificial maritime boundaries over which the national governments argue about. Indeed, the only mechanism in place that provides information/warning against piracy is the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau’ s Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur. Furthermore, of the limited commercial service provided by the Center, only ship owners, cargo owners and insurance companies, not fishermen, can benefit by taking measures for self-defense and recovery of losses.

Indeed, the predicament of fishermen and shippers operating in the South China Sea speaks about a larger question: what is the sovereignty dispute all about? In previous pages, I have tried to sort out the various contradictions in mainstream IR research on security in the South China Sea. It is clear that conventional conceptualizations of “security” are misguided by the abstract notion of threats to the “nation-state” and ignore the real threats to the lives of the people whose daily lives are directly linked to the South China Sea waters. In the following section of the paper, I take the reader through the contours of the China-Philippines dispute over the Mischief Reef, to further expose the nature of the long-running sovereignty disputes.


The Case of Mischief Reef Dispute

Mischief Reef is a barely submerged coral reef and spit extending over 15 square nautical miles (nmi 2) some 135 nmi west of the Philippine province of Palawan. It is part of the Spratly Island group whose features and attendant maritime space are claimed in whole or in part by six governments – China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Burnei. China and Philippines have since 1995 been engaged in a rather intense round of diplomatic rows over Mischief Reef. As documented elsewhere, the evolution of the Mischief Reef dispute is a product of the post-Cold War uncertainty over “regional order.” In the following space, I shall demonstrate how the story of the Mischief Reef dispute is in and of itself one that best expose the nature of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, i.e., clash of national identities.

In February 1995, the Philippines government was “alarmed” upon learning that the Chinese government had completed building a wooden structure on Mischief Reef. The Philippines accused China of breaking international law by stationing armed vessels at, and building structures on, the feature. Part of the “alarm” can be attributed to a sense of betrayal by the United States, which has an active military alliance treaty with the Philippines. For, the United States Department of Defense (USDOD), whose Navy was responsible for gathering intelligence in the waters surrounding the Philippine archipelago, had its own justifications for inaction in alerting the Philippines government while the Chinese construction activities were in progress. According to the USDOD, the 1951 US-Philippines alliance treaty did not apply to the disputed area because it covered only the “metropolitan” areas of the Philippines, as stipulated in the 1899 Paris Treaty and the 1935 Philippine Constitution, and because the Philippines claimed the islets and waters subsequent to the Treaty.

When it was too late to stop the Chinese government from building its structures on Mischief Reef, the diplomatic game centered on the utility of the latest Chinese demarcation of its sovereignty claims. The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied that the Chinese Navy had set up a base or detained Filipinos in the disputed area and said that the structures on Mischief Reef were shelters for fishers and were placed there by a department of the Chinese fisheries administration. It also said the occupation of the reef was ordered by low-level functionaries without the knowledge or consent of the central government in Beijing. If we contrast the Chinese government’s self-explanations for a state behavior with its own failure to ensure proper protection for Chinese fishermen operating in the South China Sea, we see an obvious tactic of diplomacy. In the case of failure to ensure the fishermen’s security in earning a living, the central government, in effect, want its own population to subscribe to the logic that national interests (in having smooth diplomatic relationships with other governments) override individual necessities for life. In other words, the central government wanted to be seen as acting responsibly through non-action. When it comes to the central government having to face another central government in a diplomatic row, responsibilities for state behavior were shifted to local levels of bureaucracy. Given the tight control on diplomatic affairs in Chinese foreign policy making, it would be inconceivable for a local bureaucracy to act in constructing the Mischief Reef structures without prior consent from the central government.

Viewed from the Philippines, the 1995 Mischief Reef affair and the ensuing diplomatic game changed the definition of national security. “In the Philippines, the concept of national security has traditionally been understood primarily in terms of defense against internal challenges to the government and political system.” The Mischief Reef incident of 1995 purportedly added the outside (i.e., Chinese) dimension of threat. But the Philippine response to its “new” security environment remains the same as it has been since 1951, the year when it entered into a mutual defense treaty with the United States. The Mischief Reef incident, then, aided the Philippine government in its efforts to “give substance to the Mutual Defense Treaty and increase its deterrent effect against external aggressors” by way of reaching a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. Negotiations over the VFA started in 1996 and extended until its signing in 1998. Still, the Philippine Senate remained weary of inviting any form of U.S. military presence back. When in November 1998 China decided to repair the structure it erected on Mischief Reef in 1995, the VFA, after lengthy debates in the Philippine Senate, passed by a narrow margin in the Philippine Senate in May 1999.

Part of the political drama in Manila over passage of VFA was President Estrada’s decision to cancel a state visit to China in April 1999. Estrada, while campaigning in 1998 had promised to make China his first country to visit in order to study Chinese agricultural policies. The decision to cancel a presidential trip, then, signified that China’s reparation of the structures on Mischief Reef, where no Philippine citizen resides, was a matter of far greater significance than food security for the hundreds of thousands of poor Philippine farmers who might benefited from joint farming programs with China.

It is helpful for us to know of two other acts in the Philippine government’s diplomatic game with China over the Mischief sovereignty dispute. Recognizing the over-fishing in the South China Sea waters is already a serious economic problem, the Chinese government in June 1999 imposed a two-month (July through August) fishing ban on its vessels in the entire South China Sea. On the same day, the Philippines asked China to respect Philippine sovereignty over the disputed Scarborough Shoal and insisted that the ban would have no effect on Philippine fishing vessels whatsoever. This response contradicted the previous (Ramos) administration’s proposal to make the South China Sea a maritime reserve. As scientists of either the Philippines or China would agree, preserving the fish-stocks through a seasonal ban on fishing is conducive to long-term commercial benefits in the ocean fishing industry. But the “regional security complex”, i.e., highlighting the Chinese threat to Philippine security took precedence over both the ecological security in the South China Sea and long-term private economic security of Philippine fishermen.

Then in July 1999, China proposed to hold “joint exercises with other claimant countries to control piracy in the [South China Sea] region and smuggling of drugs.” Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon told visiting Chinese Minister of Agriculture Chen Yaobang that such a proposal was part of the regional code of conduct that was being circulated among ASEAN member states. The Philippines-drafted regional Code of Conduct was a continuation of similar diplomatic documents it produced with China (1995) and Vietnam (1996). If adopted, it would serve the purpose of declaring the claimant states’ commitment not to “alter the status quo” (i.e., no more military actions in the disputed areas). Because ASEAN as a group has been unable to “confront” China effectively in recent years, the Philippines would be able to enhance its status within ASEAN by taking the lead to have China to sign on a diplomatic document for the whole region. Furthermore, in December 1999, an ASEAN-China security dialogue meeting was due to be held in Manila. In other words, continuation of the stalemate over Mischief Reef served Philippine interest in continuing to highlight its concern about security in the region: the threat from China. Against this background, whereas the proposed Code of Conduct has its own merits in preserving peace in the region, the more immediate concerns about piracy and over-fishing deserve governmental attention and action as well.


By Way of Conclusion

This research note has attempted to accomplish two tasks: re-reading mainstream IR literature on security of the South China Sea and a highlight of the Chinese and Philippine governments’ diplomatic games over the Mischief Reef territorial sovereignty dispute. In terms of mainstream IR research, the South China Sea is found to be a serious regional security concern not necessarily as a result of a continuous history of military conflicts there. Rather, a selective reading of the literature informs me that of the various aspects of security concerns assigned to the South China Sea area, transcending the deliberations about preparing for the future is a search for national identities by identifying the other-ness (translated: threat) within the so-called “regional security complex”. In reviewing the history of “clashes” between China and the Philippines, I find that for both governments, sticking to their preferred way of resolving the territorial sovereignty dispute over Mischief Reef is more important than beginning to work on possible areas of conflict resolution. Realists tend to argue that limited cooperative schemes can indeed lead to eventual resolution of the dispute. But in the case of the Mischief Reef dispute, the most active in all the bilateral South China Sea disputes, such proposals have proven to be unacceptable.

In other words, the sovereignty dispute over the South China Sea islets and waters exemplify an irony in international diplomatic practice which the Realist logic for research cannot provide satisfying answers to. That irony is obvious at several levels. Domestically, the national governments locked in the sovereignty disputes fail to act to provide an environment allowing their seaside populations to seek food from the ocean. Regionally, governments and the regional institutions established to provide security fail to act in concert to deal with daily threats to fishing in and shipping through the South China Sea. Internationally, the sovereignty disputes serve as an ample excuse for the United States to retain its military presence in the region and for the various East Asian governments to engage in an arms race – in preparation for a future military conflict. The endless diplomatic activities, launched in the name of finding a permanent solution to the sovereignty disputes, begin with the proclaimed goodwill of settling sovereignty disputes, fail to progress as a direct result of not wanting to appear soft on sovereignty claims, and ends with a continuation of sovereignty disputes. The very essence of the ongoing impasse, then, is a clash over national/sovereign identities.

The broader implication of findings in this research is on the approaches for researching the subject of “security” in the Asian context. A number of works have documented Asian contributions to/diversions from the notion of “security”. It is worthwhile to explore the intellectual, historical origins and their impact on contemporary behaviors on the part of Asian states through a prism other than Realism. A focus on the formation and interactions of national identities, on the other hand, can shed light on the ironies of political realities Realism purports to analyze and offer suggestions/prescriptions for change. I hope that this project of mine, in a very modest way, alerts like-minded students of international relations to the challenge.