Scholars discuss Kipgen’s book ‘The Politics of South China Sea Disputes’
By CSEAS Staff
August 17, 2020

An author talk and discussion of a book titled ‘The Politics of South China Sea Disputes’ authored by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen, held on August 13, 2020, was opened by Sanjay Kumar Jha, Senior Manager, Global Library, OP Jindal Global University (JGU). Mr. Buddhi Prakash Chauhan, Director of JGU’s Global Library, gave the welcome address and introduced the author and all the distinguished speakers.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen, Executive Director of Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) and Assistant Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs, JGU, welcomed the speakers and thanked all the participants. He paid his respects to late Professor Aileen Baviera of University of the Philippines, who was instrumental in the making of this book. Kipgen said he interviewed government officials, experts from think tanks, and direct or indirect stakeholders in the South China Sea (SCS) disputes for the book.

The book contains seven chapters. The introduction chapter discusses the significance and objectives of the study, research questions and the hypothesis, and the methodology and sources of data. It analyzes the theoretical debates on how governments and international organizations or institutions see international disputes through the lens of established international relations theories, particularly realism, liberalism and constructivism. It also analyzes the ‘ASEAN Way’ of dispute management, and dispute settlement under international law.

Chapter 1 elaborates on the fundamental issue of the dispute. Some believe the dispute arises out of resource conflict, while others believe it is geopolitics. Chapter 2 delves into China’s claims and activities including its artificial island buildings and its bilateral interactions with other claimant countries. Chapter 3 lays out varying positions of claimant states with regard to the dispute. It also analyses the position of Indonesia, and the ASEAN initiatives aimed at dispute management.

Chapter 4 discusses the 2016 arbitration on the case petitioned by the Philippines against China. Chapter 5 examines the role of the United States, which advocates freedom of navigation in the region, and is looked upon as a balancing power by some littoral states. The conclusion chapter summarizes the major points of the book, and discusses the linkage of IR theories and ASEAN Way with the research findings and attempts to theorize. It also discusses the way forward in the SCS disputes. It also discusses the way forward in the SCS disputes. Kipgen expressed doubt over a permanent solution in the near future, even with the formulation of the Code of Conduct (COC).

Dr. Carlyle Thayer, Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales Canberra, said that the book adds an original contribution to the study of the SCS dispute by providing a succinct analysis and overview of the key developments, especially the political aspect of the dispute. He appreciated the inclusion of realism, liberalism, and constructivism, as well as the concept of ASEAN Way and International Law to explain the dispute. He linked the colonial history and evolution to independent nations of claimant states in the SCS dispute. Citing chapter 2, Thayer noted that China bases its claims on folklore, myths and legends. He added that Chinese claims have changed several times, and are based on misinterpretation and hyper-nationalism. Thayer praised the author for a detailed study of the other claimant states in the dispute, especially Taiwan, which is usually neglected due to the conundrum over the One-China policy.

According to Thayer, another interesting point was the Vietnamese occupation of Malaysia’s Amboyna Cay. He noted that the author has outlined unresolved claims among the claimant states apart from China and ASEAN states should resolve these disputes. Thayer believed the author rightly mentions that the Scarborough Shoal was the turning point in the dispute between the Philippines and China. Aligning with the author’s view in the book that the United States should play a more active role, Thayer noted that with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent statement on the SCS, the United States was beginning to play a more active role. He also noted that the QUAD has been extended to New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Thayer said the conclusions at the end of each chapter wonderfully summarized the main points in the text.  

Dr. Do Thanh Hai, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Vietnam in India, complimented the book which touches upon important issues related to the SCS dispute. He was particularly interested in the relevant portions on history of the dispute and a dedicated chapter to the arbitration case. He expressed pity that historical events and perspectives from Vietnam are not sufficiently presented, as unfortunately the author did not have the chance to interact with competent Vietnamese scholars and policy practitioners. Still, he remarked that the book has the potential to engage a wide range of scholars and generate future discussions and deliberations on the topic. He expressed that in order to understand the larger picture, it is important to link the dispute with domestic issues of the claimant countries. He felt that popular opinion in claimant countries will go a long way in complicating the dispute.  

Hai also highlighted on the aspect of international relations’ point of view as discussed in the book, which presents a wider perception of the ongoing dispute, and appreciated extracts highlighting events leading up to China’s growing interest in the region in the 1970s. He said the author could try to engage in finding alternate ways to engage with the topic and suggested that greater portion of the book can be dedicated to international law, and the examination of respective claims and actions against UNCLOS instead of action-reaction chain. Building on Vietnam’s stance in the book, he believed more fieldworks in Vietnam and China are critical. Hai highlighted the Chinese influence over trade and security in the region, and concluded that China holds the key to maintaining peace and stability, and to resolving the dispute.    

Dr. Rommel Banlaoi, Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies, Miriam College, Philippines, said the book handles a subject that will help in understanding the politics of the region for a long time to come. He highlighted that the involvement of two major superpowers makes the conflict even more volatile. He emphasized that ASEAN centrality is indispensable to a peaceful solution in the SCS conflict.

Banlaoi put the arbitral tribunal’s award to contemplation on whether the ruling should be seen as binding or mere interpretation of law. In response, Thayer said that under UNCLOS Annex VII, the Award (legal ruling) of the Arbitral Tribunal was final and without appeal and must be complied with by the parties to the dispute. A general expectation dictates nations abide by these judgments so as to prevent damage to their reputation and legal cover to opponents in the event of an attack. Therefore, even though not enforced, such verdicts create pressure on nations.

Banlaoi said while the Philippines asserts its sovereign rights in the West Philippines sea, which has been a theatre of contestation, it also makes efforts to solve the issue bilaterally. It has been in dialogue with China to develop bilateral consultative mechanisms and joint exploration and development of resources in the region to address the dispute. He noted that without China’s cooperation, the issue cannot be resolved and painted the American military exercise in the region with skepticism. He expressed hope that by 2021, the COC will effectively create a much-needed balance among the claimant parties which shall eliminate any discord. He felt that the book could have also included the role of Russia and the European Union in the conflict.

Dr. Jagannath Panda, Research Fellow and Center Coordinator for East Asia at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies and Analysis, said the book fulfils the purpose of introducing an important subject to students, scholars and academics, which will be relevant for the coming decades. While appreciating the title, Panda said that stress on the word ‘politics’ imbibes a much wider political understanding of the conflict, which also includes the non-claimant states. For Panda, the most interesting part of the book is when the author talks about the non-claimant states. He requested the author to expand the discussion on the non-claimant states in the next edition of the book. The possibility of a coalition among the non-claimant states could be explored, given that their overlapping commercial interests are at stake in the SCS. The author can also formulate a debate on the legality of the dispute.

Taking the discussion forward on the non-claimant states, Panda said that it would be interesting to see if these states stick to their position once the COC comes out. Differing on a point with the author, Panda suggested observing whether Philippines’ President Duterte’s attitude towards China is a change in approach in handling China or a change in position on the dispute for the Philippines. He further suggested that the author could emphasize on the Indian perspective on the SCS dispute. For Panda, India-China relations will be one of the defining factors of the SCS dispute in the coming years. So far, India has played a neutral role but Chinese claims on border regions with India could compel India to revisit its stance on the SCS conflict.

Following an in-depth discussion of the book, the speakers again congratulated the author for his wonderful research work and contribution to existing literature. Mr. Aakash Chakrabarty from Routledge (Taylor & Francis) thanked all the speakers for taking part in the discussion. He congratulated the author for writing a very significant and topical book and thanked him for choosing Routledge as his publisher. He said the book is extremely relevant not just for Southeast Asia but is also a signifier of the state of world politics. Chakrabarty called the book a testimony to Routledge’s strong roots and commitment to the larger academic community and society.

Mr. Jha thanked the participants and the session concluded with appreciative remarks on having a very distinguished panel that enabled a rich discussion on the book.

The report is contributed and prepared by CSEAS staff members – Shivangi Dikshit, Akash Sahu, Sanjana Dhar, Dishant Choudhary, Mihika Kothari, Vikas Nagal and Avirat Parekh (pictures), and edited by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen with input from the speakers.