Thinking Aloud

All at sea over Asia's raging maritime disputes

Our little boat bobbed about in the choppy waters for what seemed like an age.

After several stomach-churning hours, we finally approached our destination. In the distance, you could see the lighthouse. From the ship's deck, I caught sight of the island, a tiny rocky outcrop, whitened over with bird droppings.

"That is what we are squabbling over?" I asked the captain in dismay.

The island in question was none other than Pedra Branca, about 50km from the east coast of Singapore.

As a young political reporter in the 1990s, I was sent out to sea to bring home the story of the raging dispute between Singapore and Malaysia over this nondescript island. Fierce words exchanged by political players, and skirmishes at sea, had muddied the waters between the two countries.

It is the classic prisoners dilemma, where no side wants to be the first to give up its hand, even though it is clear that everyone gains from cooperating and everyone loses if they do not. But, perhaps they might do so if everyone else did so too? Might Asia's leaders be persuaded to take their assorted maritime disputes to the ICJ collectively?

For decades, Singapore had possession of the island and operated the Horsburgh lighthouse, which the British built in 1850. But, in 1979, Malaysia claimed ownership of what it called Pulau Batu Puteh.

Despite having occupied and operated on the island for many decades, Singapore agreed to have the dispute adjudicated by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. In 2008, the ICJ awarded sovereignty over the island to Singapore.

That statesman-like decision by leaders in both countries, to accept international arbitration and abide by the outcome, helped to defuse tensions. It allowed the two sides to continue to work together, and reap the benefits of peace and stability in the region, which has contributed to the tremendous progress we have all enjoyed ever since.

Now fast forward to today, when similar tensions are roiling the seas in the region. Each day seems to bring new reports on the long-simmering disputes in South-east Asia and East Asia. Several recent developments have upped the ante:

• China deployed anti-aircraft missiles on Woody Island, part of the Paracel island chain in the northern half of the South China Sea. Later reports said it has set up radar facilities in the Spratlys chain of islands, where it has been busy reclaiming land for bases and runways, from which it will be able to project power.

• The US Navy recently sent its aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and four warships to the South China Sea on "routine exercises". They were closely followed and monitored by Chinese warships over five days in the area.

• Australia, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are ramping up military spending as a result of the ongoing tension. Australia's military budget will grow by A$29.9 billion (S$31 billion) over the next 10 years. Canberra is in talks with the US to deploy long-range bombers in northern Australia, within striking distance of the disputed South China Sea.

• China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated his country's claims over nearly all of the South China Sea as a matter of historical fact, a claim contested by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

"The South China Sea has been subject to colonial invasion and illegal occupation and now some people are trying to stir up waves, while some others are showing off forces," Mr Wang said last week. "However, like the tide that comes and goes, none of these attempts will have any impact. History will prove who is merely the guest and who is the real host."

And so the tensions continue to simmer and boil.

Talks between Asean and China to frame a code of conduct on how to navigate around these disputes have been under way since 2002, but progress remains so slow that some have concluded it will be ever elusive.

Yet, despite this, top diplomats in Singapore and around the region say that while ties are testy, the chances of an outright war are slim, since no one wants to see that happen.

Perhaps they are right, and I would like to think that they are. Yet, conflicts have been known to break out even when everyone agrees it makes no sense. Accidents happen. Misunderstandings arise. Action begets action. And things spiral out of control, with everyone lamenting the folly and pity of it all.

Right now, top leaders in Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and the Asean capitals can all point to similar reasons for their actions. They have history on their side, they might say. As good stewards, they must safeguard every inch of national territory their forefathers bequeathed them. Besides, there is politics, and no leader can afford to be seen to be weak in the face of foreign pressure.

And so the tensions continue to simmer and boil.

This uneasy situation has given rise to much talk of the so-called Thucydides trap, that old historical morality tale of how, time and again, a rising power faces off against an incumbent one, as Athens took on Sparta in ancient Greece, or Germany was set against Britain a century ago.

Must it be that way? No, this time, many are wont to say, things will be different. There will be a new style of superpower relations. After all, this is the 21st century, the age of globalisation, worldwide communications, connectivity and trade.

And yet, for all the Panglossian talk, the tensions continue to simmer and boil.

The realists in geopolitical affairs - and I count myself among them - will tell you that no leader, neither Chinese President Xi Jinping nor Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, or whoever comes after US President Barack Obama (God save us please from Mr Donald Trump!) can, or will, unilaterally agree to set aside their nation's historic claims. It is the classic prisoners dilemma, where no side wants to be the first to give up its hand, even though it is clear that everyone gains from cooperating and everyone loses if they do not.

But, perhaps they might do so if everyone else did so too? Might Asia's leaders be persuaded to take their assorted maritime disputes to the ICJ collectively? Might they accept that while each of their positions is longstanding and legitimate, like it or not, their claims are mutually contested, and adjudication by a neutral international body is the only way out of this conundrum, if the peace and prosperity that their peoples have enjoyed is to prevail.

Could President Obama earn his Nobel Prize by bringing Asian leaders together on the issue? Might the outgoing United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon do his region a great service by forging a collective way forward? Would Mr Xi wish to go down in history as the great Asian leader who helped solve this age-old regional rivalry in a new, peaceful and big-spirited way?

Yes, I know, it is a long shot. But someone needs to step up somehow and show some leadership, if Asian nations are not to go further adrift, with tensions escalating on the high seas.

To raise the chances of this happening, a younger generation of Asians would have to make plain to their leaders that the future they yearn for is one where the Pacific remains precisely that. They should insist that the region's seas and all its riches, like the planet itself, belong to us all, to be shared and savoured together, leaving behind at last the tired, old conflicts of the past.

No doubt this will sound idealistic, even naive, to some. But resorting to international arbitration is neither new nor radical, as demonstrated by the case of Pedra Branca. Similarly tricky disputes the world over have been resolved in this way. The clash between Cambodia and Thailand over the Preah Vihear temple, or the contest between Indonesia and Malaysia over the Sipadan and Ligitan islands are some examples.

Will today's Asian leaders work together to untie the knots of the past? Sadly, recent developments, and some of the rather bellicose statements being bandied about, make it hard to be sanguine.

And so, meanwhile, the region's waters continue to simmer and boil.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'All at sea over Asia's raging maritime disputes'. Print Edition | Subscribe