China Conflict Management Trip: South China Sea Dispute Primer

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Issues of state sovereignty and territorial claims have proved to be integral to international relations since the beginning of time. China has always been an impressive actor on the world stage, as a kingdom, dynasty, empire and Communist regime. As a rising power, China is challenging the international order as it flexes its muscles, not only by making claims in the South China Sea on islands rich in oil and natural gas, but also by taking bold steps to build artificial islands. Historically, China’s access to maritime resources and seaports has opened the door for its “one foot on land and one foot on sea” dominance and control. Such a strategic advantage over its surrounding Asian neighbors keeps China afloat as a psychological, economic, and international power. Keeping up with current events, Dr. Daniel Serwer, Academic Director of Conflict Management, has agreed to lead a SAIS expedition to Beijing and Nanjing, China in January 2017 — a strategic window of opportunity for SAIS students.

China’s territorial dispute involves Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. To prepare for the Conflict Management trip, selected students will meet with U.S. and Chinese representatives and officials from think tanks and universities and conduct research on various aspects of the South China Sea conflict including security, law, politics, economics, and international relations. Each student is responsible for producing a paper on a selected thematic element of the conflict with analyses and recommendations. All papers will be compiled into a SAIS Conflict Management publication on the South China Sea.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared during her visit to China that the South China Sea is a U.S. interest. Xi Jinping’s reaction was short of relaxed as he made it clear in word and in deed that it is in China’s interest and jurisdiction to exert full dominion over the South China Sea. In Feb. 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama launched the US-ASEAN Summit and in July 2016, a tribunal ruled against China’s claims in Philippines v. China – a ruling by which China refuses to abide. Will the next U.S. President be able to rebalance and pivot towards China, and effectively bridge the tense gaps between East and West? In particular, will the United States play a mediational role in the South China Sea? The world holds its breath as 14 daring SAIS students dive into the dark waters of politics, sovereignty of nations and territorial claims in Asia, and participate in negotiation and conflict management.

The SAIS students will soak in the local population’s perspective, official stance, and international and nongovernmental organizations’ take on China’s South China Sea dispute with the surrounding nations. Allen Claxton, a SAIS alumnus, fittingly penned, “The treacherous, unexplored areas of the world are not in continents or the seas; they are in the hearts and minds of men.” The advantages of being present on the ground and in constant contact with local residents as well as with government officials and international organization representatives are enormous, particularly for gaining various perceptions in China at a strategic time. By getting a handle on the insights, real-time events, experiences, reactions and predictions regarding the current South China Sea territorial dispute, SAIS students will produce a work that analyzes the dynamics of tension between China and its neighboring countries. A recurrent question will be: how does nationalism, coupled with the desire to return to the glory days of the empire and maintain spheres of influence, set this country on a path to rise as a global power, maintain dominance in the region and counterbalance the United States?

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