The Doklam Crisis: Lessons for the South China Sea

By Marika Miner
Staff Writer
19 October 2017

The de-escalation of the 73-day military standoff between China and India in Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau in anticipation of the ninth BRICS summit provides important insight into China’s national priorities; namely, that China respects the current world order. Many China watchers have raised alarms over the impact that China’s rise will have on the liberal world order, afraid that an undemocratic country would challenge rules-based international institutions. The peaceful resolution of this crisis exemplifies China’s commitment to the current world order and its institutions. This should be embraced as a strategy for dispute settlement, particularly regarding the conflict in the South China Sea. ASEAN should adopt a rules-based approach to the conflict in the South China Sea by building upon its Code of Conduct with China to include an agreed-upon arbitrational institution to serve an enforcement role.

Doklam Plateau Map

China and India share a 2,500-mile border that largely reflects the lines drawn by former colonial powers. The contestation of the Line of Actual Control has led to numerous conflicts, most recently a military standoff on the Doklam Plateau. The crisis began when Chinese border guards moved into the contested territory on June 8, 2017. The border guards were followed by a road building crew who began construction in the disputed area. Indian troops quickly became involved due to India’s close security relationship with Bhutan. This led to a standoff between Chinese and Indian troops. Representatives from both countries maintained diplomatic communication throughout the conflict, including during the G-20 meeting and at a BRICS meeting in China prior to the summit. The standoff ended when China and India agreed to “expeditious disengagement” of their border personnel from the territory.

The agreement came right before the ninth BRICS summit in early September 2017. The summit was held in Xiamen, China under the slogan “Stronger Partnership for a Brighter Future.” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stated, that “[a]s Chair, China stands ready to make active efforts and play a positive role in ensuring the success of this event.” The summit resulted in the signing of the Xiamen Declaration in which the member countries vowed to “stand firm in upholding a fair and equitable international order based on the central role of the United Nations…to build a brighter shared future for the global community.” These statements reinforce the emphasis that China and India place on their diplomatic relationship and the respect that they hold for the world order.

China’s prioritization of its diplomatic agenda over territorial expansion in the Doklam crisis signals an opportunity to peacefully resolve the ongoing conflict in the South China Sea. On August 6, 2017, China and ASEAN agreed to a framework to create a new Code of Conduct for conflict parties in the South China Sea. The framework makes large strides in improving upon past iterations of the Code of Conduct. However, it is still lacking an enforcement mechanism. This is essential because the omission of an enforcement mechanism has plagued past iterations of the Code of Conduct which dampen the effect and legitimacy of such agreements. ASEAN should leverage China’s prioritization of its diplomatic agenda to insist upon the inclusion of an enforcement mechanism in the new Code of Conduct. This enforcement mechanism should take the form of an agreed upon arbitrational institution whose decisions will be legally binding for the involved parties. The Permanent Court of Arbitration could serve as the arbitrational institution if China and ASEAN explicitly agreed to it. Notably, the Philippines took its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration which ruled China’s territorial claims illegal. China immediately rejected the ruling. According to China’s interpretation of its status regarding the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it did not have a legal obligation to adhere to the ruling. Going forward, the Code of Conduct must explicitly designate an arbitrational institution and require that its rulings will be legally binding.

China’s rise has been interpreted by many as a threat to the liberal world order. This fear fails to account for the benefits that China has reaped from liberal institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. China also holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has recently become the second largest donor to UN peacekeeping operations, signifying the political and financial stake that China places in international institutions. John Ikenberry describes the divide in current world politics as “between those who want to renew and expand today's system of multilateral governance arrangements and those who want to move to a less cooperative order built on spheres of influence.” China has firmly demonstrated its position on the side of the established world order.

The abatement of tension in the Doklam Plateau was a diplomatic success that should be looked to as a model for the resolution of other conflicts. The prioritization of international institutions provides common ground upon which countries can find peaceful solutions to disputes. A stronger Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN with an explicitly designated arbitrational institution that has the capacity to pass legally binding rulings will provide a rules-based solution to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. The effective use of an agreed upon arbitrational institution will bolster the capacity and legitimacy of international institutions, which is paramount to upholding the current liberal world order.

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Marika Miner is an M.A. candidate in Asian Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She has interned at the State Department and the U.S.-China Business Council. Her research interests include East and Central Asia.

Picture licensed under CC-BY-2.0

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