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    Greater China
     Sep 14, 2012

Point of no return in the South China Sea
By Nazery Khalid

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Recent meetings on the South China Sea in various locations suggest that if serious actions are not taken now to promote cooperation among the claimant states and settle disputes among them in an amicable manner, the 'geopolitical temperature' in this pivotal sea will increase to even more worrying levels.

The absence of an agreed mechanism to manage the disputes and govern the behaviors of the claimants has contributed to the current undesirable situation in the sea. It is feared that the lack


of meaningful moves by the protagonists, most notably by the regional and external powers; to soothe the strain in the sea will further aggravate the tension. The tense Scarborough Shoal stand-off between China and the Philippines that thankfully did not get out of hand accentuated the edgy and potentially explosive state in the sea.

At a conference in Kuala Lumpur organized by Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA), delegates went away feeling optimistic that good sense will eventually prevail in the sea. However, they cautioned against rising assertive actions and provocative posturing among the claimant states and external powers that can threaten peace and stability in the sea.

Meanwhile, in a conference in Taipei organized by National Taiwan Normal University, the calls for claimant states of the sea to justify their claims on legal basis and for disputes to be resolved through international principles and law, especially UNCLOS, resonated loudly.

At the track one level, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vladivostok, Russia also discussed the disputes in the sea. This reflects international concern over the tension in the sea of immense importance to global trade, economic and strategic interests. It is expected that the APEC Summit will endorse the need for a code to govern the conduct of the claimant states in the sea and put in place a dispute resolution mechanism ahead of the East Asia Summit to be held in Cambodia in November 2012.

Roiling waters
Several developments have sent the level of tension in the sea spiking recently. They centered around actions undertaken by the two powers with interest in the sea, namely the China and the United States.

China's actions in safeguarding its interests in the sea have been interpreted by many analysts as assertive. They include patrols in contested waters, the construction of a Chinese military garrison on Shansha Island and the harassment and arrest of foreign fishermen in disputed waters.

The call by the United States for China to engage the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to settle disputes in the sea - an approach never in favor in Beijing - has irked China which sees it as an interference in a regional affair. China was rattled by the backing given by the United States to Philippines during the Scarborough Shoal stand-off and had expressed its displeasure at the involvement of a non-claimant state in the disputes in the sea.
China, which describes its interest in the South China Sea as a 'core interest', has resisted attempts to internationalize the disputes in the sea. When the United States declared it has 'national interest' in maintaining freedom of navigation in the sea and seeing to the peaceful settlement of disputes in the sea, Beijing did not mince words in telling Washington to keep is nose out of the affair.

China's continued refusal to settle the disputes through a third party such as using arbitration or mediation has become a major impediment against moving forward the agenda of finding durable solution to disputes. Its insistence on discussing the issue via bilateral means and maintaining its ambiguous 'nine dotted lines' claim of practically the entire resource-rich sea have posed a hurdle that makes it difficult for the parties involved in the disputes to move forward.

The establishment of a Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 between ASEAN and China has failed to prevent tension from occurring and escalating. Despite commitment by ASEAN and China to agree on a set of guidelines to implement the DOC, a belated decade after the DOC was signed, not many are bullish on the political document being an effective means to cool off tension and prevent further disputes from occurring in the sea.

The call for a more binding Code of Conduct (CoC) to be agreed between ASEAN and China looks a long shot at this point in time. Until China changes tangent and agrees to discuss the disputes on a multilateral basis with ASEAN, it would be hard to wager a bet on a CoC to be agreed upon between them in the foreseeable future.

Further complicating the situation is China's alleged influence on Cambodia, the current ASEAN chair. The failure of ASEAN to issue a joint communique at the end of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 was blamed by many on China's pressure on Cambodia to prevent ASEAN from coming up with a statement on the disputes in the sea.

This has caused fear of friction among ASEAN polarized by a powerful regional power which is also a claimant party in the sea. The frantic effort after the meeting in Phnom Penh by Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa to cobble up a joint statement by ASEAN on the matter looked more like damage control than a display of unity among the region's nations.

It appears that the parties involved directly and indirectly in the disputes have reached a fork in road point where a major decision needs to be made. The tense situation cannot be left unattended indefinitely as it will push an edgy situation to an unbearable point where full-blown conflicts are inevitable. This is something that nations in the region, whose economic and strategic interests ride on the sea, can ill-afford.

Balance of power
To China, it is acting reasonably in staking its claims in the South China Sea and in defending them. To other claimant states, China's posturing borders on intimidating and can undermine peace and stability in the sea and the region. They fear that if left unchecked, China can act without restraint in safeguarding its interests the sea.

This lends currency to the drawing the involvement of external power in the disputes to create a semblance of balance of power in the sea. Step in United States which, despite not being a claimant state in the sea, has described the sea as its area of strategic interest.

In this regard, the role and influence of the United States in the equation should be seen in a constructive context. While it is easy to scoff at the involvement of an outside party in any dispute, one cannot dismiss the powerful influence of the United States on the region and for that matter the strategic calculations in the sea.
Underscoring its intent to be involved, the United States, under the President Barrack Obama administration, has announced its intent to 'pivot to Asia' and deepen economic and strategic ties with the region. It has also expressed its intent to rebalance its naval assets in the Asia Pacific that underlines its strategic commitment to the region.

These, of course, have made China nervous. Despite assurances by the United States that its 'pivot to Asia' policy is not out to contain China, and its desire to remain neutral in the disputes, China is not convinced. Beijing sees Washington's actions such as stationing Marines in Darwin, Australia; announcing to deploy littoral combat ships in Singapore; and the visit by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Cam Ranh Bay, a former United States naval base, in June 2012 as part of a choreographed construct to check China's rise in the region.

All eyes on the Big Two
In the run up to the APEC Summit in Vladivostok, United States' Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States believed that the nations of the region should work together to resolve disputes "without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force". This position is also advocated by China, which has time and again expressed its desire to seek harmonious settlement of the disputes.

In a further attempt to diffuse the tension between China and the United States in the sea, Secretary Clinton expressed Washington's hope to see Beijing playing a "positive role in navigation and maritime security issues" and contributing to "sustainable development for the people of the Pacific to protect the precious environment, including the oceans". This is consistent with Washington's view that its involvement in the region is fully compatible with China's rise, which it said is attuned to the United States' own strategic interests.

Based on the official pronouncements of both sides, it is very clear that both the United States and China share the same unequivocal position of not wanting to see conflicts breaking out in the sea. This common position should be seized upon by both sides to work on areas of common interests in the sea that can lead to the nurturing of trust, understanding and confidence between them. This will be in the interest of the littoral nations of the South China Sea which need nothing less than peace and security in the sea to facilitate trade and economic growth.

United States has welcomed the rise of China and the two enjoy deep economic and strategic ties. They both cherish the same principles in the South China Sea such as maintaining freedom of navigation, settling disputes through diplomatic channels, and maintaining peace, security and prosperity in the region. As such, they must work on areas of common interests such as maintaining navigation safety, preventing crimes, protecting assets and lives from natural disasters and managing fishery resources in the sea. One can only imagine the world of good that can come out of the two working together in the sea and what it can do to ensure peace, security and prosperity in the region.

As a growing military and economic power, China must walk the talk and live to its well-publicized commitment to settling disputes in the sea amicably and of becoming a 'good friend, good partner and good neighbor' to ASEAN countries. It must refrain from taking any actions that are provocative, assertive or aggressive that can cause suspicious among its neighbors and portray it as a 'regional bully' and a stumbling block to regional unity. It would do well to align its claims of the sea with legal justification to make clear top other claimant states the nature of its claim. Beijing's hardened stance on discussing the disputes through bilateral means is not helpful in breaking the impasse in the sea; it even runs counter against the global trend of resolving problems through multilateral mechanisms and means.

As for the United States, it must continue to constructively engage the regional players and goad them to settle their disputes through diplomatic channels. It must show a neutral face and live up to its assertion of not taking sides in the disputes in the sea. It must go all out to convince China and the regional nations that the 'pivot to Asia' policy will not alienate China, polarize the region or upset the regional balance of power. The United States and China, as established and newly-minted global powers respectively, must appreciate the fact that ASEAN does not wish to have to choose to be aligned to one of them at the expense of the other.

The two powers must understand that ASEAN is a work in progress; it has so many other areas of priorities and faces formidable challenges to become pursue its goal of creating an integrated ASEAN Economic Community. As an essentially developing area which is dependent on international trade and foreign direct investment, and counts both the United States and China as key strategic and economic partners, ASEAN cannot afford to be trampled between the fight between two Goliaths, both of which happen to be its important economic and political allies.

At the same time, ASEAN must up its ante in its dealing with both powers. It must speak in unison and show leadership on the issue of disputes in the sea. A weak ASEAN cannot hope to assume a central position in regional affairs. If it cannot agree on a common position on the disputes in the sea, it will be part of the problem, not part of the solution. ASEAN's weakness will result in regional and external powers exerting their preponderance on dictating the strategic direction in the sea. A disunited ASEAN will be pushed to the margins instead of being at the center of the regional strategic architecture where it should rightfully be.

Any party taking a zero sum game approach in the sea is bound to exacerbate the tension. Aggressive and provocative postures in the sea will not help in cooling the political temperature there. However, no power should be allowed to enjoy hegemony as it could lead to divisiveness in the region. Seeking equilibrium is the name of the game; a non-committal, non-interventionist stand by one power may lead to the other power becoming assertive and aggressive. Provocation by one may create antagonism and invite backlash from the other.

Disputes involving multi-parties such a complex and vast area like the South China Sea require all side to work together to resolve. They must exercise utmost restraint, patience and steadfastness to untangle the disagreements among them in an agreeable way. However, sharp focus will be trained on the two powers, United States and China, whose interests clash and intertwine in the sea. All eyes will be on them to conduct themselves in a way that is worthy of their global power status in handling the disputes and managing the situation in the sea Their actions and reactions will be crucial in shaping the course of the disputes in this pivotal sea.

The protagonists are inching closer to the fork in the road in the disputes in the sea. Soon, some major decisions will have to be made and game-changing options selected to avert tension from worsening and conflicts from occurring. When the time comes to cross the rubicon to change the status quo for the better, much will be expected from the United States and China to lead the way towards attaining durable peace, stability and prosperity in the sea.

Nazery Khalid is a Malaysian-based maritime policy analyst. He can be contacted at nazerykhalid@gmail.com

(Copyright 2012 Nazery Khalid.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

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