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Southeast Asia

So much for the Spratly Islands accord
By Ronald A Rodriguez

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 events confirm that maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain an issue for East Asian governments. Ownership of the resource-rich Spratly Islands is still disputed, in whole or in parts, among Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In the first quarter of 2004 alone, claimants took turns building up anxiety, raising concerns about the sustainability of the status quo and the ability of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to ensure the claimants' self-restraint. Under the declaration, signed in 2002 by the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, the claimants agreed to avoid actions that could raise tension in the South China Sea.

Two years after it was signed, however, the parties are almost back to where they started. Most, if not all, do not seem ready to allow regional concerns to supersede their national interests. For some critics, the declaration has been reduced to a "flimsy piece of paper".

The first sign of conflict came in February with the Philippines' announcement of the Balikatan exercises with the United States in the South China Sea. The Philippine action appeared to be driven by Manila's growing uneasiness over an increasing number of visits by Chinese research vessels and warships in the Spratly Islands and the sudden appearance of new Chinese markers on the unoccupied reefs late last year. The mounting tension did not dissipate until Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assured the region that the military exercises did not have anything to do with the maritime territorial disputes.

Then it was Taiwan's turn. On March 23, a Taiwanese speedboat carrying eight individuals landed on the Ban Than Reef and swiftly constructed a makeshift "bird-watching stand". Vietnam strongly condemned Taiwan's move and demanded an end to the construction activities. Le Dung, spokesperson of Vietnam's Foreign Ministry, branded Taiwan's handiwork "an act of land grabbing expansion that seriously violated Vietnam's territorial sovereignty" and warned against the possible consequences of Taiwan's "adventurism".

Taiwan's action did not go unanswered. Two days after the Ban Than Reef incident, Vietnam reaffirmed its sovereignty over the Truong Sa (Spratly) and the Hoang Sa (Paracel) atolls by announcing it would hold an inaugural tourist boat trip to the contested islands.

Then China decided to conduct a PLA Navy drill in the South China Sea on April 12, sending signals to the other claimants to back off.

This did not stop Vietnam. Unfazed, Hanoi gave its white navy ship HQ988 the go-ahead to sail for the atolls with about 60 tourists and 40 officials on April 19. Many saw the controversial eight-day round trip as just the beginning of Vietnamese tourism activities in the area, following the Malaysian lead a few years ago.

What happened to the 2002 declaration?
This maneuvering for advantage in the South China Sea reveals the frailty of the aforementioned declaration. In November 2002, the region celebrated in Phnom Penh the signing of the landmark declaration to avoid raising tension in the South China Sea. The non-binding nature of the declaration, however, did concern some of the signatories.

There are two views on the value of the declaration. Mark Valencia, an ocean policies expert at the Honolulu-based East-West Center, typifies the skeptic's view. He anticipated the declaration was doomed and considers it a flawed attempt to reduce the heat over territory in the South China Sea. This view sees the declaration to be a self-deceiving exercise that satisfied ASEAN's thirst for political accomplishment, but did not offer profound changes in the security situation. Valencia emphasizes that such a loose agreement will not prevent claimants from positioning themselves strategically in the lingering dispute.

The other view grants some merit to the declaration. Aileen Baviera of the University of the Philippines' Asian Center, for instance, cautions against a rush to judgment and outright dismissal of the declaration, arguing the claimants' constant reference to the declaration suggests parties continue to find value and purpose in its spirit. In this sense, the declaration has value as a referent, and modifies the behavior of the parties to the South China Sea dispute. The Philippines' and China's efforts to downplay their navy drills as part of regular security routines and unrelated to the maritime territorial disputes indicate a turnaround in their past self-assured positions.

Quo vadis?
However, the recent moves by Taiwan and Vietnam cannot be downplayed. It is time to reassess the declaration and see how similar incidents can be avoided.

For one, the parties should start molding a set of guidelines that will diminish the gray areas in the declaration. The declaration should define the 10 points the parties have agreed on and seek strategies to activate them as soon as possible. The mounting criticisms of the declaration should create momentum for greater interest in a more binding agreement.

In addition, the parties should build on the prospects for regional cooperation emerging from China's decision to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) with ASEAN on October 8, 2003. While committing ASEAN and China to a non-aggression pact, the TAC also increases the possibility of a more binding agreement on the South China Sea in the future.

Optimists and skeptics share the view that dialogue is a basic need in the South China Sea. But any fresh initiative should emphasize the need for progress in cooperative endeavors rather than dwell on infractions. The parties can begin with the six proposed areas of cooperation on the declaration, which include marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, safety of navigation and communication at sea, search and rescue operation and combating transnational crime.

Regardless, Taiwan will continue to be a problem. To date, China has refused to allow Taiwan to become a signatory to any legal accord in the South China Sea. Yet any failure to consider Taiwan's interests will allow it to play spoiler. A peaceful resolution to the disputes requires effective management of the Taiwan problem.

In hindsight, probably the lack of sustained dialogue weakened the foundations of the declaration. The parties overlooked the fact that continuous interaction is an equally important element of the signed declaration. While an informal working group still convenes, the gradual retreat of catalysts such as Canada and Indonesia, as well as key individuals like Ambassador Hasjim Djalal, an Indonesian special adviser to the minister of of maritime affairs and fisheries, has impeded negotiations. The parties may not readily agree, but it appears the South China Sea needs another intermediary. Takers anyone?

Ronald A Rodriguez is head of the Northeast Asia Program and Officer in Charge of the Security and Strategic Studies Program of the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS), Foreign Service Institute of the Philippines. He is currently a Vasey Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS, a US think-tank based in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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.

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