As part of her doctoral degree, the social sciences student has sought to identify the best way to mitigate marine conflict in South East Asia through international diplomacy, drawing on the current political furore in the South China Sea as an example of why methods of engagement may need a rethink.
Her research has found that armed navy personnel may actually increase tensions while civilian coastguards are highly effective problem-solvers.
“In the past, maritime diplomacy has typically been the role of navies, however, when tensions are high the best method for diffusing conflict is through the use of coastguards because they’re a civilian agency and have a more benign, low profile image and are less threatening,” Ms Bienvenue said.
“In the South China Sea, for example, there are many naval vessels in operation and because of that we’ve seen several skirmishes, particularly between China, the Philippines and Vietnam,” she said.
“All these states have navies based permanently in the region but alternatively in Japan they use coastguards to secure their waters, diminishing the likelihood of conflict.”
The South China Sea – a major sea route that has one-third of the world’s shipping transiting through its waters – has long been at the centre of various sovereignty disputes between China and surrounding nations which have accused China of using overt aggression to dominate the region.
China, Vietnam and the Philippines are all trying to claim sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea in the hope they contain oil and gas deposits, while the US has also recently announced a plan to boost its presence in the region and will base a full marine taskforce in northern Australia.
“The South China Sea is an important access route for the US, not only for oil but for warships, and if China is claiming sovereignty over the South China Sea the US is concerned they could block its access in the future,” Ms Bienvenue said.
“This is also an important issue for Australia because Australia’s resource exports require freedom of passage and security in the region.”
While the international Law of the Sea Convention defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans, including the South China Sea, Ms Bienvenue said the treaty is “open to interpretation” and suffers from ambiguity.
“There are very serious issues with the law in respect to precedence,” Ms Bienvenue said.
“While some states adhere others are not signatories to it and this impacts their different methods of cooperation,” she said.
“In the absence of an enforcer the law is largely customary but if you have varied interpretations of it then it’s not really an effective arbitration, and as such it should be reviewed.”
Ms Bienvenue’s research into international marine diplomacy has received one of Flinders University’s Best Student Paper Awards, a new initiative to recognise and reward student research across the campus.