Justice Carpio released ‘The Politics of South China Sea Disputes’ book
By CSEAS Staff
July 3, 2020

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen’s fourth book titled ‘The Politics of South China Sea Disputes’, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis), was virtually launched on June 30, 2020. Dr. Kipgen is the Executive Director of Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) and Assistant Dean for International Collaborations at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. Mr. Antonio Carpio, former Justice at the Supreme Court of the Philippines, in his esteemed presence as the Chief Guest for the event, did the honors and released the book.

Ms. Rajni Dhingra, Senior Marketing Manager at Routledge India gave a short introduction about the author and the newly launched title. The event was taken forward by Dr. Sreeram Chaulia, Dean of Jindal School of International Affairs. He welcomed the audience and congratulated Dr. Kipgen on his fourth single-authored book. He highlighted that Dr. Kipgen is a prolific writer on issues of Southeast Asia, and even though he started with subjects of democratization in Myanmar, he has now covered the entire Southeast Asian region and heads the CSEAS. The new book, Dr. Chaulia mentioned, includes a basic explanation of the context and an advanced academic analysis of disputes in one of the most conflicted regions in the world, where the sovereignty claims of multiple nations have clashed. He appreciated the author’s rigorous research which he calls a “comprehensive book on the South China Sea disputes.”

The keynote address was delivered by the founding Vice-Chancellor of O.P. Jindal Global University, Dr. C. Raj Kumar. He thanked the Chief Guest for his presence in the event and congratulated Dr. Kipgen on the publication of the book. He pointed out in the context of the book, the vital position International Law occupies in the modern day, adding that international rule of law is closely interlinked to dynamic geopolitical situations. He appreciated Dr. Kipgen’s serious scholarship and constant efforts in bringing out quality academic works in the form of articles in peer reviewed journals, book chapters, book reviews, and books, adding to the academic rigor of the institution and inspiring a new generation of researchers. Dr. Kumar also highlighted Dr. Kipgen’s active participation in other areas such as television and radio programs, acknowledging his role as a public intellectual. Dr. Kumar encouraged the works of CSEAS and its commitment to Southeast Asian studies.

The Chief Guest appreciated the new book as a valuable addition to the existing literature. He shared his perspective with the audience of looking at the book through three lenses – realist, liberalist and constructivist. He highlighted that China is the largest and strongest military power in the region, but if it continues to behave in an aggressive manner, it will be no less than a rogue state in the eyes of civilized states and fall short of soft power vis-a-vis the American influence. Attaching zero merit to the Chinese arguments in the South China Sea disputes, he pointed out that China has control only up till the Hainan Island and not over the entire sea.

Justice Carpio made an interesting observation by pointing out how liberal traditions have always prevailed despite certain aberrations in the initial stages. He cited the examples of the United States versus Nicaragua case where the former suffered a huge reputational cost for not complying with the judgement; Russia versus Netherlands; India versus Bangladesh, and the United Kingdom versus Mauritius. China is the only country which still refuses to comply with the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. He made a pressing statement that China has belied all the expectations of its peaceful rise and has positioned itself as a serious threat to the smaller neighboring countries, while subscribing to the Thucydides view that might is right. Due to this intransigent attitude, China has lost all its trust among the coastal states. Due to all these factors, there is a possibility of the collapse of the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). Pacific Island countries will suffer the most as they solely rely on such international conventions.

Dr. Kipgen thanked the audience and former research assistants of CSEAS for their contribution to the book. He explained that this book is different from many others in a way that it is comprehensive – analyzing the disputes from a historical perspective, the July 2016 arbitral ruling, as well as the present situation and future prospects by conducting ethnographic study in three countries – Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia – interviewing academics, experts and government officials who are directly or indirectly involved and or affected by the disputes. The book analyzes not only the disputing parties (including Taiwan) but also the role of non-claimant states such as the United States, India, Japan and Australia.

Panel Discussion
The panelists included Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Juwana Hikmahanto, Professor of International Law at University of Indonesia, Abhijit Singh, Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, and Hui-Yi Katherine Tseng, Research Associate at East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. Dr. Chaulia moderated the discussion.

Dr. Kondapalli gave certain insights on how the South China Sea can be analyzed under different perspectives including geopolitical, nationalist and resource-centric. Under geopolitical perspective, he emphasized the role of extra regional powers such as the United States, Japan, India, and Russia. With respect to Russia, he said the country plays a well-calibrated role by employing Rosneft in the South China Sea waters. Under nationalism, he explained how the dispute fuels nationalism in countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. Twenty-four Vietnamese ships were rammed by China and resulted in strong Vietnamese nationalism. He discussed an intriguing point on how China names its aircraft carriers after the names of its coastal provinces. Under the resource perspective, he discussed how China has forced other countries to drop their oil exploration projects, including British shell company, and forced the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for a joint exploration. There are about 200 companies drilling for energy in the region. He further pointed out that China employs a large number of coast guards under the garb of fishermen to patrol the waters and harass other countries’ fishermen in the disputed waters.

On the question of Philippines, he noted the domestic political change in Philippines and its increasing alignment to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Prior to that, certain political groups had intentions to file a case against China for causing a $172 billion damage in the archipelago, but after Duterte assumed power, all the voices were silenced as China promised an investment of $28 billion in the Mindanao Province. But now there is an increase in resentment as China fails to materialize its promise of investment.

Dr. Chaulia raised the concerns that China was ‘salami slicing’ in the South China Sea and wondered about Indonesian policies on the issue, to which Dr. Hikmahanto said that Indonesia and China are not in conflict. This is because Indonesia does not recognize the Chinese nine-dash line claim. The Indonesian people are, however, discontent and expect that their government takes a stronger stand on the issue and voice their opinions appropriately against China. He pointed out that China uses ‘divide and rule’ policy within ASEAN, and has developed close relations with some members like Laos and Cambodia. Since the regional organization works on the principle of consensus, internal divisions like these have caused fractured decision-making within ASEAN. The organization has not been able to take a united stand against China on the dispute. He stated that Indonesia supports the Code of Conduct to prevent any large-scale escalation in the region among the states involved in the disputes.

Mr. Singh said India is cognizant of the Chinese actions in the South China Sea. However, it maintains a policy of non-interference in the dispute, considering the possibility of a strong backlash from China. In the pre-COVID-19 times, China’s aggression in the South China Sea was seen as a precursor to its reach in the Indian Ocean among Indian strategic circles. Arrangements such as the QUAD have been under consideration for the purpose of containing Chinese aggression. In a post-COVID-19 situation, India will respect the ASEAN view on the matter and support a free and secure South China Sea.

Dr. Chaulia brought on the table the role of non-claimant states in the dispute, to which Dr. Tseng said that these states work toward alternative solutions and second opinions. She highlighted that China occupies a prominent position in Asia-Pacific and it cannot be ignored. It is not possible for Southeast Asian states to cut-off their relations with China as it will continue to be a major economic power. The non-claimant states play a conciliatory role and try to keep balance in their positions.

The discussion was concluded by Dr. Chaulia, where he appreciated Dr. Kipgen’s neutral position in writing the book, and his posture of not being swayed by any side. He pointed out that Dr. Kipgen has also sympathized with smaller nations which have been involved in this dispute against a mighty China. He asked if there is a villain in the dispute, to which Dr. Kipgen responded that the issue is highly complex and involves conflicting sovereignty claims. But because of China’s expansionist tendencies, it has increasingly turned out to be the aggressor in the region.

The lively discussion was closed with a vote of thanks by Mr. Akash Chakrabarty, Senior Commissioning Editor at Routledge India.

The report is contributed and prepared by CSEAS staff members – Akash Sahu, J. Mohanasakthivel, Sanjana Dhar, Ankit Malhotra, and Diksha Shandilya, and edited by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen.