Wednesday, June 8, 2011



Originally published at Newsbreak on June 7, 2011

To peacefully manage the complex territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS), Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. Del Rosario urgently calls for the promotion of a “rules-based regime” that can transform SCS “from an area of dispute to a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship, and Cooperation (ZoPFF/C).”
This concept of a “rules-based regime” aims to uphold the strict implementation of international law, which in the context of the SCS disputes, refers primarily to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Creation of this type of regime also necessitates the urgent adoption of a binding Code of Conduct (COC), which is considered to be the next logical step after the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
In other words, the proposal of Del Rosario all boils down to the need to uphold the rule of law , rather than the use of force, to peacefully settle the territorial disputes in the SCS.
While there is no doubt that the idea of a rule of law has become a maxim in any civilized society where “no one is above the law,” its meaning varies among nations with different political traditions.  There is no precise definition of a rule of law even in a mature democracy where conflicts are managed without the use of force.
The application of a rule of law is all the more problematic when applied in inter-state politics where there is the utter absence of a government that can enforce laws and peacefully manage disputes among sovereign states in a manner found in domestic politics.
In short, there is anarchy in international relations—a  grim reality also found in the SCS.
Anarchy in the SCS does not mean total chaos or sheer disorder marred by violence, although that can happen.  Anarchy is a mirror of a type of order in international politics where there is no central or “sovereign” authority above sovereign states.
Under international anarchy, the sovereign is the state, which is independent and autonomous pursuing its own selfish interests.
But how can we manage the SCS disputes in the condition of international anarchy?
The proposal of Del Rosario represents a school of thought in international relations that sovereign states can, in fact, cooperate in the condition of anarchy.  Through cooperation, sovereign states can prevent war among them despite their existing differences.  Cooperation promises peace dividends which sovereign states can benefit from.
Will it work?
Called a “Regime Theory in International Relations,” it posits that sovereign states can establish the habit cooperation by creating a regime, which Stephen Krasner (an international relations theorist) describes as “a set of explicit or implicit principles, norms, rules, and decision making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue-area.”  Regime creates a standard of behavior that facilitates inter-state cooperation. Regime guarantees states to cooperate and co-exist peacefully in the condition of anarchy.
Key to the application of a regime theory in peacefully managing the SCS dispute is the issue on whether the expectations of all relevant players in the conflict are in fact converging.  Disagreements of claimants on some important details of the proposed COC strongly indicate that there is still a great divergence rather than convergence of expectations among parties to the conflict.
While a regime theory provides a benign solution to international conflicts, which is found in the condition of anarchy, it is advanced more seriously by states with limited military means to advance their national interests.  States with greater military wherewithal to advance their national interests would hesitate to be bound by a “regime” if it would affect its advantageous position in the relative distribution of power in international politics.
Regime does not have independent power over sovereign states, particularly those considered as major powers. Powerful states are motivated to be part of the regime if it would serve their economic, political, and security interests. Major powers would opt out of the regime if it starts to limit their powers and alter their status in international politics.
In case of the SCS dispute, a rules-based regime will only be viable if it will not be used against a major power—China, the only major power among the claimants in the SCS. If a proposed “rules-based regime” in the SCS has the intention of “containing” China and “bind” China by the “rules of the weak,” China will enormously go against the creation of that regime.
But if that rules-based regime recognizes China’s peaceful rise as a major power and acknowledges China’s important role in maintaining peace and stability in the SCS without necessarily “constricting” its power ascendancy, China will in fact the major champion of that regime.
If truth be known, the issue of war and peace in the SCS largely depends on China’s current and future behavior. The promotion of a rules-based regime in the SCS must be presented in a way that it will not be misconstrued as “anti-China” so that the problem anarchy in the SCS will provide the prospects for peace, stability and prosperity for all.

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