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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 13, 2012


Hidden depths in South China Sea tensions
By Roberto Tofani

Disputes over the South China Sea must be conducted and solved peacefully. This sentence summarizes most statements released by government officials after bilateral or multilateral meetings on the issue, but also highlights the absence of a real political will and the continuing unpredictability and instability in the region.

Disputes related to sovereignty about land and jurisdiction over maritime areas show that tensions can only increase in the months ahead; or at least until a new and more binding Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea is agreed upon by China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN). Lastly, the claim to be looking for a "peaceful solution", as expressed by the parties, has not prevented a new arms race in the region.

The latest incident this week saw the Philippines' largest warship, the Gregorio Del Pilar engage in an naval standoff with two

 

Chinese surveillance craft after the latter intervened to prevent the crew of eight Chinese fishing boats being detained alleged illegal fishing in Scarborough Shoal, which lies off the Philippines' northwest coast but which is also claimed by China. As the crisis reached its third day on Thursday, diplomats from both countries were still scrambling to defuse tensions.

As anticipated by some observers, the South China Sea issue was not on the agenda during the ASEAN summit held in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh at the beginning of April. The association has a standard operating procedure meant to disguise controversial issues, however, Cambodia's decision as ASEAN chairman not to discuss the issue also reveals China's influence.

Cambodia has remained silent on the issue since it was raised by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the ASEAN Regional Forum in July 2010, and Cambodia and Myanmar were the only two ASEAN members opposed to raising maritime security concerns during the East Asia Summit held last November in Bali in the presence of US President Barack Obama. In recent years, Phnom Penh has accumulated over $8 billion in debts from Chinese loans.

"It appears Cambodia first listed the South China Sea on the formal agenda and then withdrew it. This is likely to be because China expressed strong views. In any event, ASEAN often masks contentious issues by not referring to them directly. It is clear from the final Chair's Statement that the South China Sea was discussed," Emeritus Professor Carlyle A Thayer, from thee University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, explained to Asia Times Online.

At the end of the two-day meeting, as reported in a press statement, the 10 leaders "stressed the need to intensify efforts to ensure the effective and full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) based on the guidelines for the implementation of the DOC".

Sovereignty over areas of the South China Sea is contested by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. Many areas of the South China Sea are believed to be rich in fossil fuels and are important to regional navigation and trade. In the past year, tensions have spiked through incidents at sea, especially between two of the claimants, China and Vietnam.

The two parties reached an agreement last year to solve territorial disputes bilaterally their, and the fact that - as stated also by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs - no country involved in the dispute claims all of the South China Sea area, seems to bode well for the future.

In February, Hanoi and Beijing set up working groups at department level to work on disputed issues in the South China Sea, activating a telephone hotline between the two foreign ministries at the beginning of March. The new approach could also help clarify what both parties claim in the disputed zone.

In 2009, Vietnam outlined its claims in its submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf. "Vietnam appeared to shift from claiming the waters to claiming those features - islands and rocks - which it occupied. Vietnam hasn't yet claimed which features are islands under international law and therefore entitled to a 200 nautical miles [nm] EEZ and continental shelf, and which features are rocks entitled to a territorial sea of 12 nm," said Thayer.

Hence, problems and unresolved issues still remain because "China has not specified whether it is claiming all the features including those occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia or just the features it occupies", underlines Thayer.

For example, when CNOOC Ltd - China's biggest offshore oil explorer - decided in March to develop the oil- and gas-rich northern areas of the South China Sea, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry said that this violated Vietnam's sovereignty.

Authorities in Hanoi singled out Block 65/24, which it said sits one nautical mile from one of the Paracel Islands, denouncing a range of Chinese actions that violate its territory. In reply, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin dismissed the allegations and called on Vietnam to respect China's territorial integrity.

Moreover, when a foreign company operates in contested waters, like the Indian ONGC Videsh, Chinese authorities contend that they are plundering Chinese resources. In this particular case, "China's claims to historic rights overlap Vietnam's claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)-where India's ONGC has a license. If China clarified the basis of its claim, this would help resolve this particular problem," explains Professor Thayer.

The Chinese attempt to win back the trust of ASEAN and claimants countries is therefore undermined by Beijing's lack of transparency and by its assertiveness on the issue. Two of the major causes of a new arms race in the region that lead also to the "proliferation of submarines, anti-ship missiles and C4ISR-command, control, communication and computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance-capabilities," as underlined by Thayer.

"Even if Vietnam has been opening up to Western arms suppliers for years, in the last period the requests from the government have been growing very fast, especially for defense systems, for which we are competing with other suppliers," a European supplier confirmed, to ATol on condition of anonymity. "The move that has garnered the most attention, however, was the recent US$1.8 billion order of six diesel-powered Kilo-class submarines from Russia," as underlined by "The Hanoist" in a recent article (See Vietnam builds naval muscle, Asia Times Online, March 29, 2012). But Vietnam is not the only country eager to expand their capabilities, as "the Philippines has made us a lot of requests that I cannot specify," added the European arms merchant.

As ASEAN members are buying weapons, the Chinese submarine fleet is on high alert. According to the US Office of Naval Intelligence - as reported by Asahi Shimbun - five Jin-class nuclear submarines, equipped with JL-2 ballistic missiles that boast a range of more than 8,000 kilometers, are deployed in Sanya, the southernmost city in the People's Republic of China and one of the two prefecture-level cities in Hainan province.

In this context, the risk is a proliferation of nuclear-weapons in the area, despite the diplomatic effort that led the ASEAN members in 1995 to sign the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ), a nuclear weapons moratorium treaty. In November 2011, "the Nuclear Weapons States (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United states) and ASEAN agreed to take the necessary steps to enable the signing of the Protocol and its entry into force at the earliest opportunity," but none of the five States actually signed the protocol.

With tensions rising, the possibility of incidents in the one of the fastest-growing commercial maritime areas in the world is also increasing. For years, ASEAN has been unable to work on a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the SCS issue with China, itself concerned with preventing the new US. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. US diplomacy succeeded in isolating China during the last East Asia Summit by putting maritime security issues on the agenda of the summit and underlining the importance of "freedom of navigation" for commercial purposes.

ASEAN exploited that result to counterbalance China's expansionism. However, some ASEAN members fear that a more significant presence of the US could destabilize the region. Indonesia, for example, fears the presence of US warships in support of Australia. Thailand believes that the rivalry between China and the US would intrude in regional affairs. The military relationship between Washington and Hanoi, too, that for some observers has entered a "new phase", seems to be more symbolic than practical.

At the moment, the only ASEAN member eager to support a new American "pivot strategy" in the region seems to be the Philippines. Not only for historical reasons, but also because Manila cannot rely solely on their own military force, designed to defend their own borders more than face international armies.

Most of all, Beijing does not want any interference in the South China Sea. In an editorial published in the People's Daily online, demands to respect the freedom of navigation and take responsible actions in the South China Sea, made by Lieutenant General Burton Field, the commander of US Forces Japan, were labeled as "not responsible".

"The United States is deliberately blurring the issue of the freedom of navigation and the issue of territorial sovereignty and is deliberately creating a type of public opinion to pave the way for implementing its strategy," as opined by the newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

In this context, diplomacy seems to have taken center stage over South China Sea disputes. With the decision to implement the DOC, authorities in Beijing want to demonstrate that China is not a threat to regional security and to recover the prestige it has lost also due to its assertive behavior. "But China also knows that negotiating with ASEAN states cuts out any role for the United States in facilitating a settlement. It is in China's interest to draw out negotiations with ASEAN in order to play on differences among ASEAN states," added Thayer.

During the 18th ASEAN Regional Forum held in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his ASEAN counterparts signed a document setting out agreed measures to make the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed 10 years ago in Phnom Penh more binding.

The ASEAN summit scheduled in Phnom Penh for November could be the last phase for a final COC that the 10 members will submit to China, that "wants a seat at the table to shape the COC in its interests", added Thayer. But a self-imposed deadline for drawing up a COC "may result in a messy compromise and a document without teeth", Thayer concluded.

Roberto Tofani is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Southeast Asia. He is also the co-founder of PlanetNext (www.planetnext.net), an association of journalists committed to the concept of "information for change".

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


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