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    Southeast Asia
     Dec 8, 2009
Calculated ambiguity in the South China Sea
By Peter J Brown

Just as a group of experts arrived in Hanoi last month for a first-ever workshop involving nations with overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS), China's largest fisheries administration vessel, the Yuzheng 311, dropped anchor at Yongxing Island, one of what Beijing refers to as the Xisha Islands. It was the beginning of another long Chinese patrol of the South China Sea launched from the Sanya naval base on Hainan Island.

Where China claims to many places in the South China Sea, such as the Nansha, Xisha and Zongsha islands, other claimants - including Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines - have competing claims to island groups and individual islands. They are referred to variously as the Spratly and


Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoals and Macclesfield Bank, to name but a few.

Evidence of China's growing reach in the South China Sea can be found at obscure map points such as Woody Island in the Paracels, where China is steadily expanding and improving an airstrip, as well as the remote Mischief Reef - roughly 150 miles west of the Philippines - where China has erected various structures. China's neighbors view the process as expansionist and even hostile, despite the joint signing of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

According to some security experts, China's end goal is not merely the creation of a vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending by some renderings as far south as the Indonesia-claimed gas rich Natuna Islands. They say China seeks control over the the sea as part of a plan to establish more maritime power projection, including through a fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), in sea lanes extending beyond the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. The South China Sea is the second busiest sea lane in the world and serves as China's gateway for imports of oil from the Persian Gulf and natural resources from Africa.

"China's first carrier battle groups will be based on Hainan Island, and they will patrol these resource routes. For China's political leadership, control of the SCS is a critical objective toward ensuring the economic and political survival of the Communist Party dictatorship," said Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.

However, he says, the US, Japan, Australia and several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are still standing in China's way.

"[China wants] to make it into a heavily protected territorial zone for the operation of SSBNs until such a time as Taiwan comes to provide a better base for SSBN operations," said Fisher. "China may base up to half of its nuclear missiles on SSBNs, meaning that China will only settle for dictating future regimes for the SCS."
Beefing up China's offshore presence means that its State Oceanic Administration (SOA) and China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) will ensure that fishermen and survey vessels plying the South China Sea from other regional countries have more and more encounters with larger and better equipped Chinese vessels from the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), including the Yuzheng 311.

A March 16 incident showed Beijing's growing willingness to order non-PLAN ships, including from the SOA and CMS fleets, to carry out enforcement activities in the Spratly Islands - to the chagrin of neighbors, particularly the Philippines. After US spy ship the USNS Impeccable was harassed by Chinese vessels on March 8, the Chinese dispatched what it claimed was a fishery patrol boat - not a warship - to safeguard its interests in the South China Sea.

"China would dearly like to turn its assumption of control over the SCS into a non-confrontational police exercise in which Vietnam, the Philippines and others basically do nothing," said Fisher. "Giving non-PLAN agencies larger ships and greater firepower may be an attempt at benign militarization, but it will be destabilizing just the same."

Competing claims in the South China Sea have frequently flared into showdowns, including a clash between Chinese and Vietnamese naval vessels in 1988 at Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands. Last month's joint session in Hanoi, co-sponsored by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and the Vietnam Lawyers' Association, resulted in promises to start multilateral dialogue on the many unresolved and overlapping claims in the area.

"Although in the past, China has insisted on bilateral solutions, no progress has been made because most disputes require concessions by multiple claimants. The goal for this session was likely to build confidence by holding preliminary, non-binding track two discussions and it was a good sign that Chinese scholars attended the conference because it may reflect some measure of acceptance on the part of the Chinese to a multilateral approach to untangling the disputes," said Associate Professor Peter Dutton at the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute.

According to one of the attendees, Carlyle Thayer, professor of politics at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, there were no national delegations and the Chinese representatives who attended hailed only from various universities and think tanks. "The meeting was termed a workshop, and not a conference, to water down any impression that a set of conclusions by way of a resolution or statement would be issued," said Thayer.

The event succeeded in raising the profile of regional concerns about development in the reputedly oil and gas rich South China Sea that "participants characterized as deteriorating or had the potential to deteriorate," said Thayer. "A consensus emerged that a long-standing proposal for joint development should be revived for consideration by claimant states."

Dotty maps
Perhaps more importantly, Thayer said that besides the fact that, "there was no one China position," the so-called "nine-dotted line map" was described by one of the Chinese "as currently under discussion". In 1947, the nationalist Chinese government put forward claims to the South China Sea in a map containing 11 dotted lines.

This map was adopted by the Chinese communists when they took power and later premier Chou Enlai deleted two lines in the Gulf of Tonkin to make the 11 dots into nine. Unofficial maps containing the nine dotted lines have long been in circulation. Regional officials have been unable to get China to indicate how the lines would be connected and how much of the area China is claiming, according to Thayer.

"Chinese scholars made clear that an official map of the SCS containing nine dotted lines represented the maximum extent of historical claims to the area. Chinese specialists noted that this left open areas for discussion," said Thayer. "For example, one Chinese proposed that if nations which made claims for extended continental shelves withdrew such claims, there would be several areas within the dotted line might be amenable to joint development."

This proposal is tied to the submission of claims for extended continental shelves by Vietnam and Malaysia earlier this year under a United Nations imposed timetable. Both countries submitted a joint claim to areas in the south, while Vietnam lodged separate claims for an extended continental shelf in the north.

"China lodged a protest and tabled a map with nine dotted lines to indicate the area it said was Chinese territory. This appears to have been the first time the Chinese government has tabled this map," said Thayer. "China is deliberately pursuing a policy of calculated ambiguity in this matter. It is putting off any settlement of conflicting maritime sovereignty claims until the moment suits Beijing."

There is already talk of a second South China Sea workshop in Hanoi in mid-2010. Dutton has identified a number of possible agenda items. "One positive step would be to hold a multilateral, regional forum to discuss the range of possible multilateral projects which could be undertaken to research the extent of hydrocarbon deposits under the SCS seabed," said Dutton.

"Another positive step could include development of a multilateral management framework for living resources, including a regional body to regulate sustainable fishing by all claimants under a treaty regime that allocates a total allowable catch among the various parties. Such steps would resolve some of the less difficult challenges, while postponing more difficult questions of sovereignty," he said.

Prejudiced claims
Dutton noted that a debate within China persists as to the exact nature of its claims to sovereignty and coastal state jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Among other things, China probably prefers a political solution here, rather than a solution that applies a legal framework that might prejudice its other claims, he said.

"Chinese domestic law claims sovereignty over all of the islands in the SCS and also claims territorial seas and EEZs emanating from all of its claimed territories. However, it may benefit the Chinese to remain somewhat ambiguous as to the exact nature of the Chinese SCS legal claims," said Dutton.

"It is critical that settlement of Chinese claims in the SCS does not apply a legal approach that might prejudice its claims against Japan in the East China Sea. Thus, from China's perspective, a legal framework for resolution of SCS disputes must be developed that does not compromise its East China Sea claims."

With or without a legal framework, Thayer believes China seeks to divide regional states and strike bilateral deals.

"China has recently told the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations that they should get their act together first before approaching China for discussions on the SCS. Some ASEAN states point out that getting consensus among the ASEAN 10 states would be difficult and that a unified bloc would only create friction in dealing with China," said Thayer.

The recent workshop in Hanoi will be followed on December 16 by another round of talks on the South China Sea, the next round of the so-called Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) discussions involving delegations from China and the US. The meeting will be held at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii.

"The Vietnam conference was essentially a Track 2 discussion of issues, whereas the MMCA is a Track 1 military-to-military dialogue," said Dutton. "The Vietnam Conference will have no impact on MMCA, as the issues are fundamentally different. The attendees at the Vietnam Conference were discussing national sovereignty and jurisdiction issues, whereas the MMCA discussions focus on freedoms of navigation and other military uses of the waters of the seas off China's coastline."

Thayer notes that the US Embassy in Hanoi did not send diplomatic observers to the workshop, thus distancing the US from sovereignty and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. "The next session of the MMCA may dampen maritime confrontation, such as the incident involving the USNS Impeccable. But a negotiated 'Incident at Sea Agreement' is likely to take a year or more before it is signed," said Thayer.

Thayer pointed to the visit to the US in October by General Xu Caihou, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission. (See Chinese general on a long march, Asia Times, November 3, 2009.) General Xu identified the four obstacles to a healthy and stable US-China military relationship as starting with Taiwan, and he called upon the US to cease its intrusion via military aircraft and ships' intrusions into China's maritime EEZ.

"China's main objective is to get the US to scale down, if not cease, its surveillance activities off China's coast and the naval base on Hainan Island particularly," said Thayer.

Besides General Xu's demands, Fisher points to a recently retired PLA general who publicly called for China to greatly increase its military force deployments in the South China Sea and to build an airbase on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.

"In addition to being only about 200 miles from the Philippine island of Palawan , it would extend PLA control over the Palawan Straits, a vital commercial sea lane for Japan , South Korea and Taiwan ," said Fisher who recently wrote an article about this issue. "An airbase on Mischief Reef would create a security challenge of a very high order which Washington could not ignore."

Taiwan's islands in the South China Sea make matters even more complicated. "There are also smaller islands closer to Hainan occupied by Taiwan. Beijing could use a number of excuses, from threatening military activity aimed at nuclear assets on Hainan, to a desire to create political instability in Taiwan as cause to take them over," said Fisher.

"Due to its decade-long investment in amphibious assault forces, the PLA could take these islands with ease. But having long ago chosen to concede to Beijing's 'One China' policies, it is highly unlikely that any Asian state would respond in a manner that defends their larger interests."

The South China Sea and even Taiwan are of less strategic importance to the US than they were during the Cold War-era. But China should not take this increasingly "disinterested" stance for granted. US strategy could shift with an up-tick in Chinese military activity in the region. And it is too early to tell if the meeting in Hanoi represents an important new chapter in China's dealings with its neighbors in particular.

"A continuation of US neutrality will only serve to hasten the day in which China becomes the region's anti-democratic hegemon with an ability to apply vast economic and military pressures to force regional conformity with its desires," said Fisher.

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from the US state of Maine.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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