As East Asia’s maritime disputes continue to bubble, concern with the “status quo” is emerging as a staple component of many countries’ official policies on the South China Sea. This raises several questions worthy of careful consideration. When and how did the term come to prominence? What exactly is the status quo in the South China Sea? How is the term used in practice, and how useful is it in relation to these disputes?
The term’s broad-brush vagueness – it simply means “the existing situation” – may make it appealing for practitioners of diplomacy, but the lack of clarity limits its usefulness as an analytic tool. More troublingly, being such an all-encompassing term, its use as a normative standard is inevitably selective, resulting in inconsistencies that risk breeding misunderstanding and mistrust. Unless used with care and nuance, it is a term that is more likely to undermine than underpin a “rules-based order” in maritime Asia.
The U.S. position on the East and South China Sea disputes, as Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other officials have frequently reiterated in recent months, is that it opposes changes to the status quo made through force or coercion. Senior U.S. military and civilian officials have used this standard formulation frequently since mid-2013, most prominently in relation to the PRC’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and its well-publicized island-construction project in the South China Sea.
Claimants in the disputed seas have also embraced the idea of defending the status quo from Chinese advances. The leaders of Japan and the Philippines on June 4 affirmed their opposition to “unilateral attempts to changes the status quo.” Vietnam maintains a slightly subtler position that stops short of outright opposition, as typified by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s call for countries to refrain from “actions that would complicate the situation and change the status quo of rocks and shoals.”
Before 2013 the “status quo” rarely featured in the diplomatic lexicon on Asia’s sea disputes – though an important post on this site by leading scholar M. Taylor Fravel in November 2012 used the term to describe China’s significant gains in the Scarborough Shoal and Senkaku/Diaoyu crises. Today, powerful multilateral groupings like the G7 build their collective positions around it.
Picture: Ramon FVelasquez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons