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Southeast Asia has descended into a maritime insecurity spiral since the April–June 2012 stand-off at Scarborough Shoal between Chinese maritime security forces and the Philippine Navy, which motivated Manila to initiate legal arbitration proceedings in The Hague. The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling in favour of the Philippines will be difficult to enforce. To forestall an even more intense security dilemma in the South China Sea, regional policymakers should not lose sight of four vital underlying strategic trends.
First, the power asymmetry and economic interdependence between China and Southeast Asia will continue to grow. While this does not mean that China’s smaller neighbours should give up their territorial and resource claims, they do necessarily have to sustain relationships with China that are wider than just the South China Sea disputes alone.
Second, the United States is no longer the only great power operating in maritime Southeast Asia. As China’s military capability and economic interests expand it wants to secure access to the region’s sea lanes, territories and economic zones. This obliges both Washington and Beijing to find mutually acceptable rules for maritime usage, if only because neither wants to go to war over rocks and islands per se.
Read How should Southeast Asia respond to the South China Sea ruling? by Evelyn Goh, published in East Asia Forum.