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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Sowing the seeds of stability in the South China Sea : expanding the track II discourse surrounding the Spratly Islands conflict Furtado, Xavier Anthony


The Spratly Islands conflict is somewhat artificial. While longstanding issues of territorial sovereignty are certainly part of this dispute, it is the yet unconfirmed suspicion that oil and/or natural gas exist beneath the seabed that has made this issue so contentious and, on occasion, has forced some of the disputants to exchange gunfire on the high seas. The untried assumption that hydrocarbons exist beneath the Spratly archipelago is now treated as fact. Not only have numerous academics adopted it as part of their work, but because the governments involved in this dispute have also accepted this conjecture as fact, they have all pursued confrontational and aggressive policies in the Spratly area. In order to refocus the nature of the discourse surrounding the Spratly conflict, this paper will take as its point of departure the fact that no one yet knows the true hydrocarbon wealth of the Spratly chain. With this in mind, the author proceeds to revisit a number of the related issues that have further contributed to this conflict, including the widespread belief that all of the littoral states will confront an energy shortage — an expectation that further raises the stakes of the Spratly issue. In challenging these commonly accepted ideas, the paper also poses a challenge to the structural realist school of thought which, until know, has been the theoretical paradigm of choice when examining the Spratly conflict. The author argues that, because ignorance and misinformation have fed the Spratly conflict, constructed realism provides students with a much better framework for analysis. Rather than accepting the notion that the interests of the states are determined exogenously and through a calculation of relative capabilities, the evidence suggests that the disputants have created a security dilemma for themselves through their own mistaken perceptions and interpretations. Therefore, in order to peacefully manage this issue, the project must be to arrive at a multilateral mechanism that keeps the facts at the forefront and helps reshape the existing discourse. As part of this analysis, the paper provides a review of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and, while praising its contribution to setting a consistent set of ground rules, highlights its inability to address the Spratly issue on its own. By accounting for the unique history behind the Spratly dispute, and looking closely at some of UNCLOS' central ideas, the author sheds some light on the sorts of difficulties that have emerged thus far in attempting to apply the Convention to the Spratly conflict. In order to address these issues, the author suggests the creation of the South China Sea Forum for Consultation and Dispute Mediation (the Forum). Based on the impressive work of the South China Sea Informal Working Group at the University of British Columbia, the Forum would provide a unique mechanism with which to expand the existing Track II (unofficial) diplomatic dialogue that has emerged thus far regarding the Spratly dispute. Not only would it provide a way to help move the work of the Informal Working Group into official policy channels, but it would also help broaden regional participation in resolving South China Sea issues. While the suggestion being made in this paper is not without its difficulties, it represents a creative contribution to the growing body of policy relevant work being done on South China Sea issues while, at the same time, suggesting how the Asia Pacific region might confront its other outstanding territorial disputes.

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