Lawfare in the South China Sea

In another UNCLOS-related story, the NY Times reports that Vietnam is increasingly trying to multilateralize its territorial disputes with China over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Instead of negotiating bilaterally, Hanoi is pushing a collective negotiation between all the parties — Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — that have conflicting claims. In the “Integrate but CYA” formula I’ve used to refer to Asia, this would be the “Integrate to CYA” correlary.

There’s nothing terribly novel about a collection of weaker states banding together to counterbalance the influence of a more powerful one, and China is predictably opposed to the effort. But it does raise the question of whether further regional integration would actually be in the interest of Asia’s smaller states. After all, the same logic explains why ASEAN makes a better instrument for SE Asian states to negotiate free trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea. A larger grouping that subsumes it would dilute this collective power.

It also illustrates a major difference between regional integration in Europe and Asia. European integration began with the larger states included and later absorbed the smaller and weaker ones. The reverse has been true in Asia. And the structural problem mentioned above is complicated by the politically motivated trust issues regarding China.

But if Asia is going to integrate further, the resolution of boundary disputes is a prerequisite. So how those disputes are actually resolved will be a revealing indicator of the region’s future.