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South China Seas and the Paracel Islands

(BGF) – The U.S. Ambassador James D. Bindenagel believed that the resurgence of nationalism past which lurks behind modern leaders’ mind is the truly root of  the world’s current conflicts and imposes dangerous challenge to the liberal international order that exists today. It also explains the China’s acts in the East and South China Sea. He also summed up results of the Boston Global Forum Initiative’s online conference which was on July 2 aiming at building a framework for peace and security in the Pacific, and suggested  the Scenario model to deal with conflicts. 

South China Seas and the Paracel Islands

Quan Dao Hoang Sa — Hsi-sha Ch’ün-tao

Risks of Unresolved Territorial Conflict: The Challenge to Turn Enmity into Amity

By James D. Bindenagel

James D. BindenagelPhoto: From Left to Right, Governor Michael Dukakis, Australia’s PM Kevin Rudd, BGF’s Editor-in-Chief Nguyen Anh Tuan, and Ambassador James D. Bindenagel.

Burgeoning conflicts in the Western Pacific have captured world attention. Ever-more combative conflicts over competing claims between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea have led to confrontation—challenges in the air and on sea between rival naval military forces.

There is an ominous trend, that China and Japan seem so determined to go toe-to-toe with each other. Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, recently likened the tensions between Japan and China to the relationship between Germany as a rising power challenging the United Kingdom 100 years ago, when the arms race over the Dreadnaughts helped lead to the First World War. People throughout Asia must nervously reflect on the hard lessons the Europeans learned from 1914-1991. Europeans are revisiting the Great War on the 100th anniversary of its outbreak in August 1914, after Gavrilo Princip, a local terrorist in Serbia– not one of the major treaty powers that became belligerents– assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and unleashed a devastating global war that wiped out a generation. The failure of European leadership a century ago brought calamity to Europe.

Lurking behind modern leaders are the ghosts of nationalisms past. Resurgent nationalism, which had such terrible consequences in Europe as recently as the breakup of Yugoslavia, is a dangerous challenge to the liberal international order that exists today. Even now, the Europeans are again seeing the rise of ethnic nationalism linked with the use of force by Russia in Ukraine. Russian action in Ukraine recalls the tragic and bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia. World leaders will also look to China/Japan as those countries work to manage their interwoven history: China suffered humiliation at the hands of Imperial Japan, and Japanese apologies have been inadequate to gain acceptance from neighboring countries and move beyond historical grievances. Nationalism is now a quick but highly risky device for leaders to try to drum up domestic support. And abroad, nationalism increases fear and animosity in reaction.

In China, failure by Japan to acknowledge the historic wrongs during the conquest of Nanjing, and the controversial visit by Prime Minister Abe to the shrine at Yasukuni remain significant symbols of a deficit of justice for China. Japan and China seem caught in a vortex of each country’s cultural vortices, where in Japan apology is associated with shame, and in China, the wounds of the Second World War sow seeds of new nationalism.

Nationalism has had a resurgence recently in Europe as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin is aggrieved with the outcome of history and the demise of the Soviet Union – in his mind, the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. He now seeks to reverse the effects of history by making an effort to shape current events to recover what he thinks Premier Gorbachev lost in territory and influence. He may be completely misguided, but it is important to understand what motivates him. After all, the sense of affliction and the appeal of ethnic nationalism are not just in his mind, but in the minds of many Russians.

It is apparent that President Xi is promoting a return to the Chinese Nationalist past, for example, by giving recognition of to the contributions to culture and history by Confucius. There is increased interest in traditional Chinese culture, a part of a political effort to stabilize the country in the aftermath of great economic growth and change. Promoting nationalism at the cost of rule of law and collaboration with neighbors takes the country in the wrong direction. President Xi has set out to achieve “a Chinese dream” of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The first three priorities, according to him, are: restoring Taiwan to China, regaining the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands from Japan; and “taking back sovereignty of the South China Sea,” a maritime territory that is disputed by more than 10 countries. China is pressing its claims backed by force and undermining its peaceful rise to global power status.

The South China Seas confrontation is dangerous. Recent unilateral placement of a deep-sea oil rig by the Chinese National Overseas Oil Company (CNOOC), to assert Chinese claims to the disputed Paracel Islands, has alarmed the United States, Vietnam and others in East Asia. Although there has been a public groundswell of anti-China sentiment, and Vietnam has a compelling desire to defend its maritime territory, the smaller country has few good options. So, it has to choose a course carefully. Hanoi knows it needs stable relations with China, and it looks to the United States (ironically given 1968-1975 war with the U.S.) to support stability in the region. China’s neighbors may be forced to seek outside assistance and military cooperation to counterbalance a more aggressive China.

Defusing Conflict in the South and East China Seas

China is moving forward with unilateral energy exploration in the South China Sea and is using the placement of a deep-sea oil rig to assert its claims to the disputed Paracel Islands. The move has concerned Vietnam and other regional powers, which also claim territorial rights over the waters and islands in that area. The United States is concerned over regional stability, international global commercial sea lanes, and legal status. Beijing’s decision will likely prompt Vietnam to deploy its coast guard or naval vessels to assert its own claim to the area and accelerate its efforts to draw in foreign partners for oil exploration and production. But Beijing is calculating that Vietnam will be unwilling and unable to make any serious attempt to stop the Chinese drilling.

According to Stratfor analysts, Beijing continues to rely on its growing military and technological capabilities to test its asserted nine-dash line expansionary claims over maritime boundaries in the East and South China Seas. Along with responses and reactions from neighboring countries and outside parties, China’s reliance on the military, a potentially destabilizing factor, will continue to shape the region’s security environment, even though Beijing is maneuvering carefully to avoid outright conflict while exerting its authority.

China took control of the Paracel Island chain by force in the 1970s, but it did not begin to formally enforce its claim until the late 2000s, when it undertook a broader, more aggressive maritime expansion plan. Beijing stepped up its military presence in and around the islands and established the Sansha administrative region, which encompasses the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and the Macclesfield Bank, and falls under the jurisdiction of Hainan province, as a symbol of China’s de facto control.

The case of the Paracels is just one example of how Beijing is firming up its presence in the South China Sea and gradually eroding other claimants’ ability to challenge its supremacy. But even as Beijing ambitiously claims the entire South China Sea, bounded by the so-called nine-dash line, it has no real presence on any island (besides a few atolls and reefs) in the distant Spratly Island chain. In addition to China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have claims in the island chain. China’s navy is not good enough to overcome the logistical challenges such distances present, so its ability to project its dominance throughout the maritime sphere is limited.

Instead, Beijing’s strategy seems to consist of three steps. First, it uses the nine-dash line as a historical justification for its intrusions into disputed waters. Second, it enforces its claim in tactically advantageous areas where it has an actual presence, such as the Paracels and the Scarborough Shoal, which it seized from the Philippines in 2012. Third, it continues to develop its military and technological capabilities to carefully push its maritime boundaries farther without antagonizing all of its neighbors at once. (Stratfor, May 8, 2014 “China Uses Deep-Sea Oil Exploration to Push Its Maritime Claims”)

The escalation of Chinese engagement in the Paracel Islands and off the coasts of Vietnam and the Philippines calls for options to defuse the conflict and avoid armed conflict.

Despite growing nationalisms, within and in reaction to China’s rise, which threaten peace, efforts should be made to work cooperatively with China — not to contain it.   Japan, China, and others (Vietnam, Philippines) should set aside the unresolved issues and turn to joint management of national interests in fishing, energy and resource development. Codes of conduct in the East and South China Sea are necessary to manage maritime operations. Joint maritime policing, adherence to the Law of the Sea and maintenance of the freedom of the seas for shipping, could also help to avoid political miscalculation and military confrontation. Most important, the Chinese, Japanese and regional leaders should set aside the use of force to resolve tension, such as those over the Paracels, Senkaku/Diaoyu, and other Islands.

The Boston Global Forum should convene and craft a framework for dispute resolution, including a conference on the issues and a dialog that could address engagement among the parties.

 What practical engagement steps could break the stalemate and avoid conflict?

There are three dimensions that generally surround conflict. Adam Kahane outlines them in his book “Solving Tough Problems:” dynamically, generatively, and socially complex. The current challenges in Southeast Asia involve problems that are dynamically complex stemming from history where cause and effect are far apart in space and time. Other elements of the conflict are generatively complex as tension unfolds in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways. And difficulties are socially complex because people see the problems differently and the problem has become polarized and stuck.

Professor Ezra Vogel’s frames five questions in the South China Seas challenge. First, prevent explosive conflicts; 2) deal with practical issues of environment, maritime management, resource development; 3) develop Asian “ownership” of the issue through International Court of Justice; 4) create new structures; 5) defuse emotional issues of history, especially WWII reconciliation.

As the State Department has noted, States have the first level of responsibility to prevent explosive conflicts. And there is high level involvement in regional meetings as well as efforts for institutions to take on practical mechanisms for cooperation, especially in maritime capacity building and trust/confidence building measures. Solutions and components of the Boston Global Forum Framework for governments to address include developing deeper cooperation and collaboration by:

– Agreeing on rule of law for resolution of disputes is a primary commitment not to use force to resolve disputes. Adhering to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and implementing international law and conventions about territories and skies as well as the Code of Conduct and an international convention/ law on cyber and data security.

– Building international structures for consultation, negotiation and cooperation that have enough power and rights to judge and re-enforce countries respect laws and conventions. States can build and are building on the East Asian Summit, ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forums, and ASEAN +3 (China, Japan, South Korea) with observers from U.S., India, Australia and New Zealand. China, Japan and South Korea could create a Trilateral Group to address regional issues in East and North East Asia.

There are many issues to be addressed including, enhancing transparency in government policies, granting information rights/data protection of people in all countries, and managing jointly large marine ecosystems.

– Integrating Asian economies into the global economy through the WTO, International Financial Institutions (IFIs), and regional economies as well as agreeing on the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and rules of global governance. Cooperation among states can also improve rights, safety, and life conditions of workers and promote Corporate Social Responsibility.

– Assuring regional security calls for the United States presence not to undermine China’s peaceful rise. Building a multilateral framework for security discussions such as the Munich Security Conference or the German Marshall Fund Brussels Forum offer models. The U.S. remains a Pacific power and will be engaged with all the parties in the region to play its role in maintaining peace and security. The Financial Times (May 2, 2014) reported that the “US president’s approach is clear enough. Washington’s response to China’s rise has been to engage and hedge – to seek to draw Beijing into the international system while refurbishing its own regional alliances. More recently, Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas has led US policy to tilt towards a sturdier “engage and compete”.

– Assisting in reconciliation, especially for historical grievances, is a pre-condition for regional security Unresolved conflicts are the seeds of nationalism and new confrontation such as those on-going over the Senkakus, Paracel, Spratley Islands and the Scarborough Reef. US and European efforts on World War II reconciliation projects have contributed to the regional peace in Europe for 70 years. The BGF Framework should include regional structures where bi-lateral disputes can be discussed. Exchange programs for culture, music and art between countries face-to-face and through the Internet . In addition to young leaders, the countries’ leaders should prepare a white paper on each one’s understanding of their historic relations and contributions to peaceful relations since 1974. The Gulf of Tonkin-Hainan agreement between China and Vietnam is one example of a common approach can grow form shared historical narratives that can lead to better understanding,

The Boston Global Forum could have several roles. First, as in planned in Vietnam, BGF is providing a platform for international discussion of these issues and can influence the governments involved. Second, as Ambassador Shinji Yanai noted BGF could meet on a Track II or Track 1.5 basis face-to-face and address some of these issues as Tom Patterson outlined – China and the new Asia-Pacific security structure; what support the U.S. could give to smaller countries without upsetting China; and what role should smaller countries play. Third, I would suggest national/multinational scenario projects to create visions of the outcomes of the political developments with the aim not of predicting the future but to influence the outcome, to create possibilities and avoid resignation into powerlessness.

Scenarios to Shape the Future

The scenario model I suggest is based on Adam Kahane’s work with several countries, notably the South Africans in their peaceful transition avoiding the racial war so many predicted. Elements of such a long-term project include:

–        Inviting leaders (mid-level) from business, academia and government to create scenarios.

–        Call for Scenarios address a threatening problem

–        Key perspectives are represented

–        National leaders endorse the project

–        Workshops for scenarios/stories of what the group wants in the future

–        Discussion among participants on what is plausible, not that the scenario can’t happen

–        Retreat atmosphere with free time for sharing thought

–        Sub-teams created for expanded discussion over 3 months

–        Presentations to political leadership with competing scenarios

–        National conversations

A similar process hosted by the Aspen Institute Berlin in the 1980’s brought together mid-level participants involved in key decisions shaping the post-Berlin Wall world and they rose to policy making positions.


Efforts should be made to work cooperatively with China — not to contain it, while taking care not to engage in nationalistic antagonisms. Japan, China, and others (Vietnam, Philippines) should set aside their unresolved issues and turn to joint management of national interests in fishing, energy and resource development. Codes of conduct in the East and South China Sea are necessary to manage maritime operations. Joint maritime policing, adherence to the Law of the Sea and maintenance of the freedom of the seas for shipping, could also help to forestall political miscalculation and military confrontation. Most important, the Chinese, Japanese and regional leaders should take the use of force off the table to resolve tension, such as those over the Paracels, Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Scarborough Reef and other disputes.

Japan has a special role to address post WWII reconciliation and “could and should have done much more to give real substance to its apologies, as the Germans have done. At least since 1970, Germany has taken a comprehensive and credible approach to atoning for its Nazi past, fully acknowledging its horrors in school curricula, graphically commemorating them in museums, monuments, and ceremonies, and employing official discourse that has been unfailingly contrite.” (Lionel Barber, FT)

There is no denying that China suffered humiliation from the Japanese Imperial Army invasion in the Sino-Japanese Wars, and China is particular bitter about the rape of Nanjing. Little wonder, given the absence of acceptance of the apology from Japan, that the Second World War continues to feed Chinese anger. The longer term challenge, in Europe, involving Russian ethnic nationalism or in Asia with Chinese nationalism, is how to turn enmity into amity. Then as now, the best way to proceed is to begin with small steps in the resolution of many disputes. And this is where Japan’s Prime Minister must do much more than (implicitly) point the finger at China.

The parties should engage with each other in clarifying narrative to promote mutual understanding and prevent angry populisms and xenophobic nationalism that can rebound to destroy leaders and countries. The United States should provide needed leadership among parties to create and share historical narratives that can lead to better understanding.

One way to better understanding can come from scenario building or storytelling, which are powerful tools. Scenarios should be built for Japan, Vietnam and China identifying young leaders from politics, business and academia to come together frequently to present their narratives and share comprehensive discussions on a broad range of issues to strengthen mutual understanding and cooperation.