The Foreign Service Institute hosted Dr. Christopher Roberts of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Mr. Ernie Bower of the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) during the forum “The South China Sea: Great Power Rivalry and the Dilemmas for Middle Powers such as Australia,” part of the Mabini Dialogue Series, held on 7 June 2016 at the Institute’s Carlos P. Romulo Library.
In his lecture, Dr. Roberts observed that regional middle powers like Australia and Indonesia are playing a delicate balancing act by trying to simultaneously appease the two great powers, but he believed that such a policy could not be sustainable in the long term. Instead, he suggested that middle powers should take a more holistic approach to strategic issues in the South China Sea, including increasing the role of government to forge new directions in foreign trade and diversifying foreign investments toward critical resources and infrastructure so as to lessen economic dependence on the great powers.
Dr. Roberts concluded that, crucially, the middle powers should still be able to stand up against China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. In this regard, he urged the middle powers to support the ASEAN member-states to conclude a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (excluding uncooperative parties if necessary), demand compliance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the upcoming arbitral tribunal ruling, and define which actions on the ground would not be tolerated.
As the discussant, Mr. Bower added that while the US does not take any sides to the disputes in the South China Sea, its role in the region is to help middle powers and Southeast Asian states build confidence in urging China to play by the rules and not to further deteriorate trust.