SINGAPORE — The territorial dispute in the South China Sea — referred to as the Spratly Islands dispute — used to be described as a major regional security flash point. Although core issues remain unresolved, economic integration and globalization, since the beginning of this decade, have temporarily shunted parties in the dispute away from direct confrontation.

While the conflict appears to be de-escalating, almost all claimants have been coming up with and relying on nonmilitary means to enforce claims and to consolidate their stance. Some organize tourism field trips to the disputed areas and atolls. Others send scientists there for wildlife research, while other powers with more coercive capital construct permanent structures on disputed reefs and rocks.

The South China Sea dispute is a bargaining game. Each country must decide which of the various strategies it possesses to use against others. The one with the most bargaining power gains the biggest reward. Those with no bargaining power leave empty- handed. The most powerful player will contest aggressively and use superior strength to intimidate weaker foes. And that is what’s happening in the South China Sea.

China, the most powerful player, has been exercising a relatively aggressive policy toward other claimants. Since 1947, China has claimed sovereignty over an area that accounts for more than 75 percent of the South China Sea. In 1992 the National People’s Congress promulgated these baselines, which, in the words of the U.S. Institute of Peace, defy conventional international legal interpretations.

To enforce its claims, China has resorted to military confrontation — against Vietnam in 1974 and 1988 and against the Philippines in 1996 and 1997.

China also has been very active in enforcing its claims via nonmilitary means. Specifically, China periodically has employed deadly force against civilian fishermen from neighboring countries when they traveled through the disputed waters. China also pressured international oil companies such as BP and Exxon Mobil to back out of joint-venture exploration projects with Vietnam. And China has been building many permanent structures on disputed atolls and rocks for “scientific and humanitarian” purposes.

Underwriting all these measures demands a sophisticated strategy. China plays to divide the Southeast Asian claimants through economic and diplomatic means, while mounting a worldwide propaganda campaign to publicize China’s “unequivocal stance.”

In late 2007, China announced the formation of a new “city” in the disputed area, although the area referred to barely had a population to speak of and consists mostly of water and desolate islands. On Nov. 24, 2008, China announced that the country would invest more than $29 billion in oil exploration projects.

Both announcements met with surprisingly little opposition from the other claimants. International media largely neglected the first one. The second one made headline news around the globe, yet most reports forgot to mention the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

China’s coercive yet understated diplomatic posturing and success are understandable. What’s harder to comprehend is the lack of response on the part of China’s rivals. If Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei confront China separately, their failure is certain because they are at a severe disadvantage, both economically and militarily. If they formed a coalition and confronted China as one, it might be strong enough to withstand China’s designs.

History has shown that China will concede when it faces an adversary with an equally strong suite. In a recent territorial dispute in the East China Sea, China and Japan agreed June 18, 2008, on mutual exploration and exploitation. According to this agreement, all the joint-venture projects are located along the border originally asserted by Japan, not China. In other words, the border previously drawn by China was of no value. Japan’s territorial assertions regarding the East China Sea were upheld.

Nonetheless, a coalition in the South China Sea dispute will not be easy for Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. For a coalition to work, these countries must first trust each other. In 2003 and 2004, China easily persuaded the Philippines to sign a bilateral agreement that tossed aside Vietnamese concerns. Lack of trust will make all four countries vulnerable to Chinese manipulation.

These ASEAN countries should put aside conflicting claims over the islands, reefs and rocks in the Spratlys and work collaboratively on a fair division of the disputed area. They must also be more proactive in disseminating information about their position and the legality of their claims on the international stage. Without worldwide support, even a durable coalition of ASEAN members may not be strong enough to counter China over the South China Sea dispute.

Du Tran is a consultant with ERS Group (www.ersgroup.com).© 2006-2008 OpinionAsia (www.opinionasia.org)

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