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    Greater China
     Apr 28, 2012


Peace lies beyond the South China Sea horizon
By Jingdong Yuan

SYDNEY - The ongoing standoff between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island in Chinese) is again focusing the international spotlight on the long-standing territorial disputes between China and a number of claimant states in the South China Sea.

The latest tension began in early April when a Philippine naval frigate confronted Chinese fishermen and attempted to place them under arrest under the charge of illegal fishing and poaching in what Manila claims as its territory.

Beijing responded by sending its maritime surveillance vessels to the area to block the Philippine warship. The two countries subsequently entered into discussions with each side standing

 

firm on its territorial claims while pledging a diplomatic way out. At the time of writing the Chinese maritime vessels and fishing boats have reportedly left the Scarborough Shoal. But the maritime disputes are far from over.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea emerged in the early 1970s when it was discovered that the region could contain significant deposits of oil and natural gas. China and Vietnam were embroiled in military clashes in 1974 and 1988 and in 1992 Beijing promulgated legislation making territorial claims to the South China Sea based on historical discoveries.

The 1990s saw an escalation of tensions between China and the other Southeast Asian claimants - Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines, with the 1995 Chinese occupation of the Mischief Reef the most controversial development. Since then, Beijing and Manila, and subsequently China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) entered into a series of dialogues and negotiation, paving the way for the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002.

Over the past few years, however, some of the key claimant states to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, principally China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, have sought to reiterate and strengthen their claims both through stating their positions publicly and and by taking more assertive and at time aggressive actions to stake out their claims based on their own interpretations of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

These include more active maritime surveillance and exploration activities, tussles over fishing grounds, arrests and harassment of fishermen by each country's maritime authorities, and threats and endangerment of foreign navigation. These developments have caused serious concerns over the potential escalation of disputes into major maritime and military conflicts.

This is in sharp contrast to the relative peace and tranquility since the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002 by China and ASEAN countries. What happened?

The Scarborough Shoal dispute is a reflection of the underlying tension and competition between China and its neighbors over sovereignty, resources, and security in the South China Sea and has deeper strategic drivers beyond the immediate zone of potential conflict.

One is the growing need of all the claimant states for energy and resources in order to sustain growth and achieve prosperity against shrinking land-based resources and growing dependence on critical production inputs imported from the Middle East, Africa, and the Persian Gulf. This recognition of the potential limits to future growth highlights the importance of the South China Sea.

Second, while none of the claimant states is unrealistic enough to believe that it can secure its territorial claims against the others short of using military force and risking significant diplomatic backlash and serious economic consequences, each has strong incentives to stand on and strengthen its claim, hoping to be better positioned in future negotiations on the final resolution of the dispute.

Rising nationalism and the revolution in communications provide accessible and increasingly influential platforms for public opinions that in turn affect foreign policy formulation and implementation, making conciliation difficult. Witness the highly nationalistic rhetoric in China's blogosphere and anti-China demonstrations on the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Third, for rising powers such as China, a growing debate and emerging consensus have informed leaderships that sea power, even for continental countries, is the key to commanding the global commons and an essential ingredient of great powers in the future. And finally, growth and prosperity over the past two decades in East Asia provide the financial wherewithal for military modernization, in particular in the naval patrol and power projection capabilities.

The geostrategic ramifications of the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea go beyond their geographic confines and affect US interests and its relations with China. To begin with, the growing Chinese assertiveness, whether misperceived or real, raises serious questions about US interests and staying power in the region, as well as the credibility of its alliance commitments.

First, the re-emergence and intensification of territorial disputes are taking place during a period of perceived US retraction from the region in the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the global financial crisis of 2008, which have left Washington increasingly focused on domestic issues and budgetary woes. In contrast, the past decade has witnessed the phenomenal rise of China, in economic power, political influence, and military capabilities.

Second, China's sovereignty claims and its growing assertiveness directly challenge what Washington has always regarded as its fundamental right - freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. This allows the US to carry out its diplomatic and military missions and fulfill its alliance commitments, including joint military exercises, search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance.

However, while Beijing maintains that it does not challenge the principle of freedom of navigation, it does raise serious concerns over and publicly objects to the military intelligence gathering and surveillance close to China's naval installations. The Hainan Island incident in 2001 and the USS Impeccable incident of 2009 are reflection of this growing tension between China and the United States.

Third, being the smaller and weaker parties to the South China Sea disputes, Vietnam and the Philippines, and indeed other ASEAN claimant states, naturally have strong incentives to get US support to counter China. In recent years, Hanoi and Manila have sought out and engaged Washington in ever expanding military, as well as diplomatic and economic ties, with defense exchanges, naval port calls and joint exercises, and purchases of US equipment. Manila in particular has sought to secure firm commitments from Washington with regard to the latter's obligation to the 1951 mutual defense treaty should the country get into military conflicts with China.

This presents serious challenges for the Barack Obama administration - not least how to manage China's rise and not be entrapped in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The administration's "pivoting" or "rebalancing" to East Asia is clearly driven by its geo-strategic calculations against the changing power relations in the region. But this hedging does not preclude engaging China and certainly does not preordain direct confrontation between the world's two largest powers.

Clearly, the right approach for Washington is to remain impartial while encouraging dialogue among the claimant parties. To strengthen its own case in maritime navigation, the US has to seriously consider its legal status within the framework of UNCLOS. But most importantly, Washington and Beijing need to discuss and/or implement existing and new bilateral mechanisms to manage and prevent future incidents at sea that could drag the two navies into open conflict. The next round of Strategic and Economic Dialogue may be the right platform to begin serious discussion.

Proper management and eventual resolution of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea requires both bilateral (China vis-a-vis its key claimant states and US-China) and multilateral efforts (ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN plus one, plus three, East Asia Summit) for crisis management, conflict control, and confidence building. None is easy and requires strategic vision and diplomacy, which are in critical demands at a time of rising nationalism, leadership transition, and the growing importance of maritime resources for national economic development.

Dr Jingdong Yuan is Acting Director of the Center for International Security Studies and an Associate Professor at the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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