Issue-Based Cooperation on Conflict Resolution in the SCS -- Roles for ASEAN
The Journal of Territorial and Maritime Studies (JTMS) recently spoke with Edcel John A. Ibarra about his article "Issue-Based Cooperation on Conflict Resolution in the South China Sea: Exploring Roles for ASEAN Beyond the Code of Conduct," published in the Winter/Spring 2022 issue of JTMS (Volume 9 No. 1).
Presenting an original framework to explore the roles of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in cooperation on conflict resolution in the South China Sea, Ibarra’s employment of an issue-based approach to international relations breaks down the South China Sea disputes into their component issues. Through this research, Ibarra identifies the types of conflict resolution and modes of cooperation implied in each, while supporting the need for additional complementary efforts (e.g., conflict settlement), in other modes (e.g., “minilateralism”), and on other issues (e.g., maritime rights, maritime power projection, and marine economic development), in addition to concluding on a code of conduct.
In this interview, Ibarra was willing to help answer questions on why this new framework and issue-based approach were needed, what component issue of the dispute he finds to be the most critical or primed for future complimentary engagement, and his current opinion on how likely this form of cooperation among ASEAN member states could be produced.
The full text of Mr. Ibarra’s article can be found on the Articles tab of the JTMS homepage. JTMS is very thankful for his time and consideration in giving us this interview.
Q1: In your most recent writing for JTMS, Issue-Based Cooperation on Conflict Resolution in the South China Sea: Exploring Roles for ASEAN Beyond the Code of Conduct, you introduce an original framework to explore the roles of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in cooperation on conflict resolution in the South China Sea by analyzing cooperation on conflict resolution by issue. Can you further explain why this new framework and issue-based approach were needed and the benefits its utilization can bring to the analysis of multiparty conflicts?
A conflict rarely involves only a single issue. It may stem from only a single issue, but it will almost always make impacts extending beyond the “root cause.” This is true in the South China Sea disputes. The root causes of the disputes are the overlapping claims to territorial sovereignty, but other related but distinct issues could also become sources of actual conflict (i.e., violent confrontation). An example is maritime power projection between China and the United States in the South China Sea. If the risk of collisions between their naval and air vessels in the South China Sea is left unmanaged, we could see tensions spiral downward into armed confrontation. This issue is separate from the territorial sovereignty issue, and it can—and should—be managed without waiting for the “root causes” to be resolved first.
Thus, understanding a conflict demands us to also understand all the distinct issues that make it up. Identifying these component issues could reveal that different issues require different types of conflict resolution. Of course, the “root causes” must eventually be resolved head-on through conflict settlement, but in the meantime, the other component issues may be handled through conflict prevention, management, or transformation. Thus, I advocate issue-based conflict resolution. I recognize that international conflicts are difficult to resolve, but I believe that targeting the component issues offers the best chance for peace in the short and long terms.
Disaggregating conflicts into their component issues also gives us the added benefit of revealing which states really are the “direct parties” in a given issue. This is important for multiparty conflicts, like the South China Sea disputes. Continuing the previous example on the maritime power projection issue, China and the United States are direct parties. However, tellingly, the other territorial claimant states (e.g., the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia) are not because these states either cannot or do not engage in shows of maritime force to intimidate other states. Conversely, the United States is not a direct party in the issue of territorial sovereignty because it has no claim to any of the islets in the South China Sea. So, in the same conflict, we see differing sets of direct parties. One state may be a direct party in an issue but not in another issue. This indicates that, consequently, conflict resolution mechanisms should not only be issue-based but should also be configured to ensure that all direct parties in a given issue are included.
This is an implicit criticism of the current reliance by most states in the region to resolve the South China Sea disputes through the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations mechanism. This reliance is ill-informed because, depending on the specific issue, this mechanism is either too inclusive (includes states that are not direct parties to the conflict) or exclusive (excludes states that are not direct parties to the conflict), as I detail in the article.
Q2: During your article, you qualified the conclusion that ASEAN can only play a limited role in conflict resolution and instead supported that ASEAN can play a leading role depending on the issue within the broader dispute of the South China Sea. Basing this observation on the need for ASEAN to go “beyond the Code of Conduct” and avoid a “catch-all strategy,” what component issue of the dispute do you find to be the most critical or primed for future complimentary engagement that researchers and policymakers should take note of?
My overall position is for ASEAN states not to rely solely on the Dialogue Relations mechanism with China to resolve the many specific issues that make up the South China Sea disputes. Not all of these component issues directly involve only China, anyway. ASEAN should first explore cooperative mechanisms for conflict prevention, management, and prevention in the South China Sea among themselves. There is no proper ASEAN-only solution to the South China Sea disputes because all efforts are currently at the ASEAN-China level.
I think fisheries management and marine environmental protection are the most urgent issues on which states need to cooperate. The South China Sea is overfished, and its marine environment, especially coral reef ecosystems, has been deteriorating. Given the urgency of this issue, willing states must establish cooperative mechanisms without waiting for unwilling states to accede. Unwilling states must be excluded from cooperation mechanisms until such time that they become willing to participate in such initiatives. In a sense, then, I advocate minilateralism for these issues. There are tons of precedents, anyway, of minilateral maritime cooperation in tSEAN region, such as Malacca Straits Patrols and the Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines Trilateral Cooperation Arrangement.
Q3: At the end of your paper, you stated that “Ultimately, cooperation is needed not only between ASEAN member states and China but also among all direct parties in different modes and on different issues.” With this in mind, how optimistic are you that this cooperation among ASEAN member states could be produced when applied to an issue-based approach instead of a concentrated establishment of a Code of Conduct?
I am not very optimistic. China has advocated a “dual-track” approach. The first track emphasizes bilateral negotiations for, presumably, the core issues; the second track emphasizes consultations under the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations mechanism for regional security issues. China has ways to pressure some ASEAN states to adhere to this approach, and indeed, some ASEAN states have seemingly adopted the approach. Unfortunately, the dual-track approach lumps the South China Sea disputes into only two broad issues. Yet, as I write in the article, the conflict is far more complex. And again, depending on the specific issue, the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations mechanism is either too inclusive for handling the core issues and the issues of territorial defense and sea control, or too exclusive for handling the maritime power projection issue and most nontraditional security issues in the South China Sea.
*** Edcel John A. Ibarra is a research specialist at the Philippines Foreign Service Institute. The views expressed herein belong solely to the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the opinions of JTMS or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***