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Time for a South China Sea Council

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On the face of it, there seems to be little similarly between the Arctic and the South China Sea. The Arctic, after all, is ice-covered, limiting navigation at least for now, and the Arctic Circle is home to only some 4 million people, whereas the South China Sea is the second most used sea-lane in the world and is bordered by 10 nations with a combined population of approximately 1.9 billion. But dig deeper and similarities multiply. Both areas, for example, contain significant resources, and as a result are confronting territorial disputes. Yet while the Arctic States have been able to keep the peace and move toward sustainably developing an area that could be home to 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves through the regional Arctic Council, the South China Sea has been described as a "powder keg." The time has come to apply the lessons of the Arctic and form a South China Sea Council (SCSC).

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 as a forum for promoting cooperation between the Arctic bordering states, which include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The original aims were modest, including conducting joint scientific studies on climate change, petroleum drilling, and Arctic shipping. It was not until 2011 that the first binding treaty came into effect involving search and rescue. Now, though, the importance of the Arctic Council has reached a tipping point. Last month, the Council met and admitted five Asian states as observers, including Japan, India, China, South Korea, and Singapore, with the EU's application pending, at an event attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Starting small and building on common ground, such as sustainable development and search and rescue, has proved to be an effective catalyst enabling the mission creep now evident in the Council. At the last meeting, a new agreement was signed on oil pollution and emergency preparedness. In short, as was reported by Heather Exner-Pirot in the Arctic Dispatch, "[t]he Arctic Council has come of age. It is productive and collegial. It focuses appropriately on common environmental security challenges, and it is making good progress on addressing these." Can the same be accomplished in the South China Sea?

The story of the Arctic Council should inform efforts to improve regional cooperation in the South China Sea. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, for example, could begin by working on common environmental concerns such as marine pollution in the same way that the Arctic countries signed the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in 1991, which became a stepping-stone to the formation of the Council. The South China Sea nations could then establish a Council with a limited mandate, such as the sustainable development of the area, and work toward agreements on scientific collaboration and issues such as search and rescue before moving on to more difficult territorial and security concerns.

Even though the Arctic Council enjoys a limited mandate from its member states, it has been successful at environmental governance and diffusing tensions in a potentially volatile region. The Council has already achieved considerable success in generating knowledge about the Arctic and bringing added attention to the region in global forums. Although the analogy is certainly not perfect, the United States and other Arctic nations should encourage the South China Sea nations establish a SCSC without delay. With some luck, a pole of peace could be replicated to cool tensions in a regional hotspot. And you never know, before long the Arctic nations could be applying to the SCSC for observer status.