The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), in partnership with Griffith Asia Institute (GAI) of Griffith University, Australia, and with support from The Asia Foundation and New Era University-ASEAN Studies Center, hosted the Second Manila Conference on the South China Sea on 3-4 August 2016 at the Manila Hotel, Manila, Philippines. This was a follow-up to the First Manila Conference held in July 2011, which focused on the need to calibrate regional cooperative activities in managing the South China Sea disputes.
The Second Conference, with the theme “Managing Tensions, Revisiting Regional Efforts, and Fostering Cooperation,” assessed the current situation in the South China Sea and identified possible courses of action, with emphasis on the role of international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in managing and resolving disputes. The Track 2 conference gathered local and international legal scholars, security experts, and practitioners.
In his message, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto R. Yasay, Jr., underscored the need for all relevant stakeholders to “reason together” in finding a peaceful and rules-based way forward in resolving the South China Sea disputes. Secretary Yasay’s message was delivered on his behalf by Undersecretary for Policy Enrique A. Manalo.
The Conference speakers noted the increasing complexity and uncertainty in the South China Sea as geopolitics and great power dynamics between the US and China come to the fore. Prospects for cooperation in the areas of fisheries, search and rescue, and marine environment protection, however, remain hopeful given the convergence of interests among the littoral states. Political will and mutual trust and confidence are necessary for any cooperative arrangement to be realized and to succeed.
Several speakers also noted the importance of UNCLOS in facilitating the interpretation of maritime claims and the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. In their view, the final award of the Arbitral Tribunal on the Philippines v. China case addressed and clarified certain issues, including the relationship between UNCLOS and historic rights, and the legal status of features. This could help untangle some of the gridlocks in the highly complex South China Sea disputes.
The Conference concluded with an emphasis on the importance of self-restraint both in the activities on the ground and in the pronouncements being made by the respective governments. The need for greater cooperation, creativity, and patience was also highlighted in building mutual confidence and reducing the risk of conflict in the South China Sea.
The Conference was attended by government officials, members of the diplomatic corps, academe, and the media.