Imagining bilateral negotiation in the South China Sea
January-March 2017
By: Haryo Budi Nugroho

Although China and the Philippines have the liberty to custom-make a joint development arrangement, they would first need to define the disputed area for joint development around Scarborough Shoal and identify the resources that can be managed together. The US Energy Information Administration once released a study that the area around Scarborough Shoal does not have high hydrocarbon potential. Whether or not this is true, China and the Philippines need to determine that the resources are worth the expense to set up a joint development framework. What does exist on the shoal, however, is guano – layers of bird droppings that can be sold as fertilizer.

From this perspective, it appears that Scarborough Shoal is more of a political token or a point of pride, as opposed to a tangible economic resource. Whether as a face-saving strategy or to overcome domestic demand, China and the Philippines might enter into a joint development arrangement even if it does not yield any significant economic benefit.   

The desire of Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Duterte to resolve the South China Sea dispute must be supported. In this case, it is important to note that no modern ownership disputes over islands or maritime features have ever been resolved through negotiations. In other parts of the world there are other island disputes yet to be resolved, such as the Machias Seal Island between Canada and the United States, the Falkland/Malvinas Islands dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom, and the Liancourt Rocks between Japan and South Korea.

Southeast Asia can be a model. After decades of negotiations, regional states eventually agreed to settle their dispute through adjudication. Indonesia and Malaysia with regard to Ligitan and Sipadan; and Malaysia and Singapore regarding Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge, through the International Court of Justice. Now, the proverbial ball is with China and the Philippines.

Haryo Budi Nugroho is an Indonesian diplomat currently assigned to the Office of the Special Envoy to the President of Indonesia for Maritime Delimitation. This essay reflects his personal views.

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