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*PREVENTIVE DIPLOMACY
AND THE SOUTH CHINA SEA DISPUTE

Raymund Jose G. Quilop

Security analysts perceive that the dispute over the Spratlys could escalate into a military confrontation between any two or among the claimants. The six Asian states—Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam—want the islands, atolls, cays and reefs in the South China Sea comprising the group called Spratlys for their economic and strategic importance. This makes preventive diplomacy greatly important in managing the situation, preventing conflict in the area from arising, and preserving regional peace and stability.

Preventive diplomacy means “consensual diplomatic and political action with the aim of preventing severe disputes and conflicts from arising between states which pose a serious threat to regional peace and stability; preventing such disputes and conflict from escalating into armed confrontation; and limiting the intensity of violence and humanitarian problems resulting from such conflicts and preventing them from spreading geographically.” This working definition was developed by the participants of the Workshop on Preventive Diplomacy in February 1999 sponsored by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific through the support of the United States Institute of Peace.

Preventive diplomacy measures may be undertaken bilaterally by the claimants or through multilateral regional institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and multilateral processes, including the Workshops on Managing Potential Conflict in the South China Sea. The 8-Point Principles for a Code of Conduct signed between the Philippines and China is an example of a preventive diplomacy mechanism undertaken by claimants. The Philippines and Vietnam have also come up with a 9-Point Code of Conduct. Such principles can help cultivate norms that encourage the claimants to seek for a peaceful resolution of the issue and forego the use of force in settling the dispute.

At the multilateral level, preventive diplomacy necessitates timeliness and focuses on prevention of conflict. Therefore, it is useful to have an “early warning system that can effectively gather information and provide analysis to map out danger points and assess [the possibility of conflict] before a crisis results.” The ability to monitor activities in the South China Sea enables the states in the region to anticipate the possibility of conflict and take the appropriate measures to prevent its eruption.

On the other hand, the holding of workshops on managing potential conflict in the area is an unofficial mechanism where participants are involved in their private capacities, hence, more freewheeling and creative. They can lead to new ideas and initiatives that can be acted upon by the governments concerned. Moreover, by focusing on functional areas of cooperation, a possible collaboration among the various claimants can be initiated. If such functional collaboration can be sustained and gains momentum, it will eventually lead to increasing cooperation in both scope and level that will spill over to the political and other aspects of the relationships of the states involved.

Nevertheless, it is a challenge to make regional states, particularly those involved in the South China Sea dispute, to be receptive to the idea of preventive diplomacy. Some states, notably China, are apprehensive that preventive diplomacy would mean an incursion on its domestic and internal affairs. Meanwhile, regional states look toward the ARF to prevent conflict in the South China Sea. Its capability to undertake preventive diplomacy measures is a litmus test of its capability as a regional security mechanism. ARF is expected to prevent armed confrontation due to many potential sources of conflict in the region, including the South China Sea dispute.

Nonstate actors and track two (unofficial) diplomacy will contribute a great deal to the management and prevention of conflict over the South China Sea dispute. Closer interaction between track one (official) and track two channels should also be promoted to ensure that inputs from track two mechanisms are appreciated and acted upon by track one organs.

It is also worth noting that despite the persistence of tensions relating to territorial and maritime resource disputes, other aspects of relations were not visibly affected. Economic, cultural, scientific and technical cooperation continued. In particular, trade even registered a steep rise beginning in 1995, mainly due to an increase in Philippine imports from China.

Fundamental differences in Philippine and Chinese perceptions of the Spratlys can be observed. First, on the importance of the dispute in overall foreign policy, China does not consider the dispute very important at this time and prefers to downplay the conflict and postpone settlement. For the Philippines, the dispute is of vital importance. It has indicated that it also wants short-term results, especially on the issue of Mischief Reef.

Second, on the approach to dispute resolution, China prefers bilateral negotiations but dialogue with ASEAN can be tolerated. But for the Philippines, bilateral dialogue can help but ultimately multilateral solutions are needed. Moreover, appeals to the international community are also considered an important part of conflict management from the Philippine perspective.
Third, on negotiation style, China wants quiet diplomacy and secrecy in negotiations. On the other hand, the Philippines is open and transparent, playing out the conflict in both local and international media.

Fourth, on the role of external powers, the issue is of no concern of the United States and others, as far as China is concerned. On the part of the Philippines, the US should be committed to assist the Philippines and other regional states have reason to be concerned.

And the fifth difference in perception concerns what each side has submitted as their proposals and demands as confidence building measures (CBMs). CBMs refer to measures taken by adversaries to reduce mutual suspicions and develop a basic level of trust in order to pave the way for the resolution of conflicts. For China, CBMs with the Philippines should involve preventing arrest of fishermen, ceasing low flights over Mischief Reef, and allowing “normal” fishing operations and cooperation. For the Philippines, CBMs with China should mean preventing intrusions and illegal fishing, especially in EEZ, and recognizing the Philippine claim over Mischief Reef.

The above fundamental differences, if not properly addressed can easily lead to misunderstandings, an escalation of tensions, or even untoward incidents or accidents. Persistent dialogue on the issue has at least succeeded in making known to each side the perceptions and concerns of the other side. Even the appreciation of how far apart they are on certain issues, as in the case of China and the Philippines, is an important first step in moving closer and finding common ground.
From the Philippine perspective, dialogue with China, combined with actions actively asserting its opposition to China’s occupation of Mischief Reef in bilateral and multilateral fora, helps keep international attention on the issue. This somewhat reduces the danger of China even more boldly taking unilateral actions to promote its claims.

The process of resolving the territorial and maritime resource dispute between the two countries is bound to be protracted. The confidence-building process, on the other hand, can achieve incremental progress, and if it is properly focused, can help keep the final resolution of the dispute on the agenda. In the meantime, it forces each side to justify to the other its policies and actions, emphasizes the importance of compromise on a “win-win” situation, and helps bind both parties to acceptable norms and principles of behavior.


* A full-length version of this article can be read in the May 2000 issue of the OSS Working Papers on "Preventive Diplomacy and the South China Dispute: Challenges and Prospects" published by the Office of Strategic and Special Studies, Armed Forces of the Philippines where Raymund G. Quilop serves as senior researcher/analyst. Prof Quilop also teaches at the Department of Political Science, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, UP Diliman.

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