The South China Sea is a major strategic waterway for trade and energy shipments to Asia’s major economies. It has been the focus of maritime disputes which have continued for more than six decades, with competing claims from China, Vietnam, the Philippines and others. In recent years, growing Chinese assertiveness in pressing its claims has unsettled the regional security order, drawing the attention of the United States, Australia and other powers concerned about freedom of navigation and a rules-based order.
The springboard for this discussion is the recently published book, edited by Leszek Buszynski and Christopher Roberts, which examines the South China Sea as an ongoing maritime dispute which has become a potential conflict zone. This volume is the final outcome of a National Security College collaborative research project, which involved a number of present and former academic staff from both the College and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU. The book examines the conflict potential of the current dispute, discusses how the main claimants and the United States view the issue, and assesses the prospects for resolution or management of the problem.
The panelists discuss the arguments of the book in the light of recent developments, such as China’s ‘island-building’ activities and the Philippines case before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. There is a particular focus on four questions:
· What are the security risks arising from continuing tensions in the South China Sea, including to Australia’s interests?
. What are the contours of a possible resolution to the South China Sea disputes?
· Is resolution a realistic option?
· Do dispute management and confidence-building measures comprise a more feasible set of options for preventing conflict, and how would these work?