Editor’s Note: Gregory B. Poling is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies and the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a bipartisan think-tank based in Washington, D.C. Mr. Poling manages research projects on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, with a particular focus on member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). His current research interests include disputes in the South China Sea, democratization in Southeast Asia, and Asian multilateralism. Here, Mr. Poling speaks specifically to recent tensions in the South China Sea, CSIS’ work in investigating the rapidly developing events in the region, and the implications of these on the various actors involved.
As an undergraduate, I studied history and philosophy, with a minor in Asian Studies. I was actually a China hand and spent a significant amount of time in Beijing and Shanghai (including studying at Fudan University and later teaching English). Eventually I realized that no one is hiring philosophers. I decided I wanted to turn my social sciences background to something more policy relevant and went to graduate school for International Relations with a focus on Asia. I planned to focus on China, but during the course of my studies I took courses on Southeast Asia and fell in love with the complexity and dynamism of the region. I now tell people it is a good thing I did; Southeast Asia experts are few and far between still in Washington, but China watchers are a pretty numerous bunch.
How is the South-East Asian region unique in its geopolitical issues? Do you see this region becoming more strategically important in the coming decades?
Southeast Asia is no more or less unique internally than any other region, I suppose. But the ten nations of ASEAN have remarkably dynamic polities and economies. That combined with their placement at the crossroads of the Asia Pacific means that Southeast Asia will play an outsized role in the coming decades. As a unit, they have the potential to act as a middle power, helping to chart the course of the region.
CSIS has frequently been cited in recent media, particularly in relation to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Has it been particularly difficult to obtain information about such an isolated part of the world? Have the controversies and sensitivities of the region proved to be barriers to your investigations at all?
Getting information about the South China Sea disputes has rarely been a problem. Separating out fact from fiction and propaganda can be. Also, frankly, the coverage of the disputes is often filled with misinformation and misinterpretation because the legal and political issues involved are so complicated. I’ve been leading the South China Sea research of our Southeast Asia program here at CSIS for nearly four years, and I’m still learning new minutiae of international law and the history of the disputes.
We often think of borders as purely land-based and static. Yet the issues surrounding the South China Sea and land reclamation there show that this is not always the case. Would you agree that borders worldwide are becoming more malleable?
It’s become a bit of a fashion in international relations circles to talk of malleable borders in terms of borders that are un- or under-regulated and allow the spread of people, weapons, drugs, and other transboundary security threats, all of which is true. But borders themselves are not really becoming more malleable. If anything, states’ commitments to absolutely demarcated land borders are stronger than ever, even if attaining that demarcation remains difficult. The increasing implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the demarcation of boundaries under it, are also crystallizing boundaries at sea in a far more extensive manner than ever before.
You have written extensively on maritime-specific disputes. How do these differ from land-based disputes? Do you see maritime borders become more important in the coming decades?
Maritime disputes, once you get beyond the twelve nautical mile territorial sea, are primarily about resources and rights. Land disputes often involve those issues, but are primarily about sovereignty. Resources and rights can be negotiated far more easily than sovereignty. Maritime boundaries are certainly becoming more important thanks to the regime of UNCLOS and the increasing capacity of states to exploit offshore resources. But the silver lining is that a state’s seabed and water column for the most part do not invoke the same nationalist sentiment as its land territory, which makes maritime boundaries in theory more easily negotiated and arbitrated. Conversely, the vehemence of local Chinese nationalist sentiment to protect its 9-dash line claim derives from decades of narrative within China that has confused the difference between maritime entitlements and “territory.”
How do you see the role of international member state-based organisations like the UN changing in relation to increasingly malleable borders in some regions of the world? Do you think there is a future for the concept of a geographically-defined “nation-state” that the current world is predominantly structured around?
Nearly all relevant international bodies operate from the position that the nation state is the primary geopolitical unit. It is certainly true that transnational entities, as well as subnational ones, are playing an increasingly important role in the world. But the twenty-first century will still be on dominated by the Westphalian nation-state, however imperfect the notion might be.
How do you think things are going to develop in the South China Sea in the next few years? Can China continue on these same lines, or will some sort of geopolitical tipping point be reached, where someone has to act?
We face two futures. In one, the Southeast Asian claimants, with support from outside powers like Japan and the United States, manage to rally enough international support for international law and opprobrium against China’s insistence on tearing up UNCLOS via the 9-dash line that Beijing decides the costs—in lost soft power, unwillingness of others to work with it, etc.—outweigh the benefits of its dogmatic opposition to compromise. In that case, the claimants can begin to find a path to a long-term management system, one in which the territorial disputes over islands and other features is set aside and an agreed upon area of maritime dispute is established for joint development, conservation, and other cooperative actions.
In the other future, China’s leaders refuse to come to the table no matter how much pressure is placed, OR the other claimants and their partners fail to maintain their consensus on the primacy of international law in solving the disputes. In either case, China will refuse to recognize how badly its actions in the South China Sea has negatively affected its attempt to be a responsible rising power, UNCLOS will be effectively a dead letter, likely leading to tension in places like the Arctic and the Persian Gulf, and the Asia Pacific will be a much more dangerous, might-makes-right geopolitical space in the coming decades.
Photo – CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/AFP