14 February 2017

South China Sea: War on the Horizon?

Tensions in the South China Sea, fed by rivalling maritime claims, mark one of the most serious international crises of the past decade. Could a local clash escalate into a regional, or even global, conflict? In other words, is war on the horizon? To answer these questions, the Graduate Institute proposes six articles in Global Challenges, a new series of dossiers designed to shed light on major issues of the twenty-first century in a simple, objective and graphic manner. Details from Marc Galvin and Dominic Eggel from the Research Office who coordinated this dossier.

Why did you choose to dedicate the first issue of Global Challenges to the South China Sea?

The situation in the South China Sea has once again taken centre stage. If maritime claims in the region reach back to the 1970s, China’s recent militarisation of a number of artificial islands and islets has increased tensions between riparian states (China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam). Concomitantly, the region has witnessed multiplying clashes between fishing boats and patrolling vessels, a surge in nationalist sentiment, and a steady increase in military budgets. Submarine war in the South China Sea has become a major concern for military strategists. Far from appeasing the situation, the Arbitral Tribunal’s recent ruling and  Donald Trump’s assertive stance toward China have made the situation more sensitive. In short, the worry is that a simple spark could set the region ablaze.

Is war therefore inevitable in the region?

The multiple perspectives adopted by the contributions to this first issue – historical, juridical and political – allow for a better apprehension of the conflict in the South China Sea but without ultimately deciding the question of the imminence of war. The militarisation of the region and China’s unilateral push to enforce its security agenda with little regard for international law are indeed serious causes for alarm. However, a series of shared interests among all regional actors and secular processes of collaboration, notably between the two superpowers, allow for a more tempered outlook.

What was the rationale behind launching these new dossiers?

This series was born out of the will of Philippe Burrin, the Graduate Institute’s Director, to share insights, ideas and opinions produced by the Graduate Institute’s research community with a greater public. The rationale is that the human and social sciences bear a responsibility for offering keys of interpretation and solutions to society’s most pressing issues. Examining, in accessible language, a series of international issues, the dossiers combine academic rigor with the tools of scientific journalism inspired by new communication technologies. Building upon the expertise and contributions of the Graduate Institute’s 450 professors, researchers and PhD students, the dossiers come in an attractive and didactic format including maps, interviews, videos and infographics.

What are the distinctive features of the dossiers?

The word that best qualifies the dossiers is “hybridity”. They combine a journalistic with an academic approach, asking simple questions, contextualising them and offering straightforward answers. Without being overtly constrained by full-fledged editorial requirements, safeguards are being put in place through the recourse to an Editorial Committee composed of academics. The dossiers aim to combine the flexibility of the web with the aesthetics of a magazine. The format allows for reactivity to current events, publishing at low cost, use of infographics and video, and integrating outcomes of conferences. Finally, the dossiers are bound with interdisciplinarity, crossing the perspectives from the Graduate Institute’s academic disciplines. Two dossiers per year will be published in Globe, the Institute’s institutional magazine.