Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Security in the South China Sea

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Security in the South China Sea

Article excerpt

Daojiong Zha [*]

In modern East Asia, the pursuit of security is a particularly problematic enterprise. Until the European "explorers" reached the Asian shores, the ideas/principles of "nation-state" and "international relations"-as was enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia were alien to the rulers of Asian empires. Subsequent European and North American contacts with East Asia led to colonization by, first, Western and, later, Japanese militaries. The end of World War II in Asia not only put an end to colonization, it began an unprecedented historical era in which East Asian polities started to apply contemporary ideas and practices of international relations in their interactions with each other.

Central to the logic in mainstream contemporary international-relations literature is the pursuit of "national security," in spite of its ambiguity in definition and scope of reference. [1] Indeed, since existence of one state comes through acceptance by another state or group of states it interacts with, the legitimacy of a state and all it claims to represent is, throughout history, a contentious matter. Among those areas of contention, the geographical scope of policing the populations and resources by a state is probably the most obvious. The South China Sea provides an excellent case of such contentions.

For centuries, the South-China Sea remained stateless. Occupation of the islands and atolls dotting its waters was, in the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries, at best a minor issue of concern to European colonizers whose main interest lay in continental East Asia. It began to affect the evolution of interstate relations in East Asia only after the end of colonization--colonization first by European powers and later, in a brief occupation in the 1940s, by Japan. [2]

However, in taking the South China Sea as a geographical area of reference, one easily notices an apparent contradiction in considerations of security. Since the end of World War II, the region has been one of relative peace. The two military clashes (1974, 1988) over ownership of the waters, both between China and Vietnam, were brief incidents; they did not extend to warfare on a larger scale. [3] What, then, makes the South China Sea an attractive subject of inquiry to security studies both within and outside East Asia?

This article attempts to make meaning of concerns about security in the South China Sea, an area of peace for most of the past half century. It does so through a rereading of security literature on the region and analyzing the case of post-Cold War tensions between China and the Philippines over Mischief Reef Island in the Spratly island group. As later parts of the article illustrate, the China Philippines dispute exemplifies the ways through which threats to security are made meaningful. The purpose of my inquiry, however, is not to add one more strategy to the abundance of strategies already presented: [4] my aim is to highlight the clash of national identities in the search for "security" that has dominated security discourses about East Asia in general and the South China Sea in particular.

The article begins with a review of mainstream security literature about the South China Sea--a review that points to how conceptualizations of "security" have made possible the promotion of a relatively peaceful area into one of serious security concerns. The second part of the article examines the China-Philippines dispute over Mischief Reef, which illustrates contradictions in conventional understanding of "security."

Re-reading the Literature on Security in the South China Sea

The literature on the South China Sea as a security concern is too voluminous to be reviewed here comprehensively. [5] Barry Buzan's identification of a "security complex" provides a useful tool in starting to sort out some major streams of concern. For Buzan, a security complex is a "group of states whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securities can not be realistically considered apart from one another. …

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