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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 18, 2012




Sea of trouble for ASEAN
By David Brown

As predictably as the annual monsoon sweeps across the South China Sea, the question of which country, or countries, own which parts of the maritime region has grown annually more vexing.

The typhoon season ends, the fishing fleets set sail and efforts to find oil and gas beneath the seabed resume. A series of tense face-offs ensue between China and Vietnam or China and the Philippines. Diplomats enjoin all parties to refrain from acts that will inflame the situation.

The story by now seems so familiar, and the tangle of claims so perplexing, that readers can hardly be faulted for mousing over to another story. The truth is, however, that recent events have

 

altered experts' assessment of the South China Sea disputes and may yet show the way to a game-changing initiative.

Going back several years now, China's behavior vis-a-vis Vietnam and the Philippines has been so egregiously assertive that even the friendliest of "China hands" are hard put to find excuses. Until recently, Washington's wisdom was that China is a bumptious new superpower that if carefully and respectfully handled can be reasoned into mature "partnership".

However, Beijing's insistence that its claim to ownership of the South China Sea running nearly up to the beaches of Singapore is "absolute" just doesn't fit the model. Nor does its unrelenting harassment of Filipino and Vietnamese fishermen or its semi-successful efforts to intimidate oil companies under contract by Manila or Hanoi to explore their offshore economic zones. Acts like these don't jibe with China's claim that its objective is regional peace and stability.

Profound disillusionment has set in with and within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The 10-nation group has proven a wholly inadequate foil to China's challenge. Though the US, Japan, Australia and other over-the-horizon powers would much prefer to support a regional approach to preserving the peace, ASEAN just can't get out in front. The grouping works on the principle of consensus; unfortunately for Manila and Hanoi, ASEAN's current chairman is China's client, Cambodia. Thailand, Myanmar and Laos are also notably averse to crossing Beijing.

ASEAN has been trying to forge a consensus on a binding "code of conduct" for the South China Sea. On July 9, heading into the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) with the US, China and other dialogue partners, there were reports that ASEAN senior officials had at last reached agreement on a draft code. Instead, the meeting ended in chaos; participants couldn't even agree to issue a wrap-up communique.

"Utterly irresponsible," muttered Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to reporters. "China bought the chair, simple as that," summarized another unnamed ASEAN official.

Further, the notion that China isn't really spoiling for a fight looks increasingly strained. In late April, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, issued a lengthy report that described Beijing as not really in control of the situation, despite appearances to the contrary. Instead, said the ICG, China's central government is driven by public opinion and hamstrung by the ill-coordinated initiatives of its coast guard forces, oil companies and provincial governments on the South China Sea littoral. It was an important report, based on many interviews and doubtless reflecting the comments of hundreds of officials in China and elsewhere.

And yet, excepting perhaps the first few hours of a face-off between well-armed Chinese fishery protection vessels and Philippine patrol boats at a reef 145 off Luzon, nothing that has happened since then substantiates the ICG's premise that China's core problem is internal policy incoherence.

Coherent aggression
When China's diplomats blew off the ASEAN Code of Conduct draft this month, it was just one more event that by its nature must have had Beijing's approval. That closely followed the China National Offshore Oil Company's startling invitation to foreign oil companies last month to tender bids for the right to explore nine tracts just off Vietnam's coast.

At almost the same time last month came China's proclamation that the Paracel and Spratly Islands and the Macclesfield Bank (which according to China includes the Scarborough Shoal that it has lately contested with the Philippines) are now a Chinese administrative entity called Sansha City. Hainan Province has urged this step for years; up until recently, the central government has refused permission.

In a more ambiguous category are two other recent events: China's announcement that frigates of its Maritime Surveillance Agency would regularly patrol the Spratlys and the deployment of a 32,000-ton factory ship to support a fleet of smaller fishing boats that Singapore-based experts say are fast depleting South China Sea marine resources.

Against this, Hanoi's riposte - a vote by its National Assembly to pass a law on the management of Vietnam's maritime frontiers which does not specify where these are - seems like a comparatively small move. The Vietnamese and Philippine governments wish they could do more to blunt the southward creep of Chinese maritime power but their general staffs, if not members of their legislatures, know that their armed forces are considerably outgunned.

After years of neglect, the Philippine armed forces are barely capable of maintaining domestic order, let alone deterring Chinese encroachment. Vietnam's navy, air and air defense forces have made strides over the past decade and could likely hold their own in a dust-up with China's blue water marine surveillance and fisheries enforcement craft. An armed confrontation would, however, give the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) cause to intervene in order to - as Chinese demagogues frequently urge - "teach Vietnam a lesson".

To restore a balance, Manila and Hanoi have sought military aid wherever it can be found. Philippine President Benigno Aquino has relied in particular on US readiness to ramp up bilateral cooperation under a 60-year-old mutual defense treaty. Vietnam has spread its net wider, buying arms from Russia, France, Canada and the Netherlands, enlisting Indian help in submarine warfare training and multiplying military-to-military contacts with the US, Australia and Japan.

Washington gladly supports exercises aimed at building the capacity of Southeast Asian allies to mount a credible deterrent to China. However, it has consistently discouraged suggestions that its Pacific Fleet assume an active policing role in the South China Sea area. Nor under current circumstances can the US agree to sell lethal weapons to Vietnam. The American Congress, already wary of another open-ended military venture abroad, will demand palpable moderation of the Communist regime's treatment of its internal critics, a quid pro quo that Hanoi simply will not concede.

That leaves diplomacy - or does it? After Cambodia, Brunei is up next as ASEAN's chair, followed by Chinese allies Myanmar in 2014 and Laos in 2015. In short, last week the odds against effective action by ASEAN to ward off South China Sea clashes and perhaps to foster real problem-solving by the feuding claimants just got a lot longer.

An obvious work-around would be for a subset of ASEAN members, the five or six that are most strongly opposed to the South China Sea's incorporation into greater China, to come forward with their own initiative. Ideally, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei, cheered on by Indonesia and Singapore, would sort out among themselves just what it is they claim and do not claim, as proposed in recent articles by independent analysts.
None of the claimants would have to give up their claims at this point, the analysts have argued. But by clarifying the legal basis of their maritime claims and separating these from the more difficult but geographically much smaller disputes based on claims to land features, they would be able to present a united front to China on this crucial point: the only acceptable basis for maritime claims in the South China Sea is international law.

The process just described would challenge the political ingenuity of all six of the Southeast Asian states just mentioned, particularly Vietnam and Malaysia. Vietnam has asserted that it is ready to rely on international law to settle claims, but doing so may play badly with citizens who, like counterparts in China, cling to an expansive notion of Vietnam's "historical seas". As for Malaysia, it simply needs to stand up and be counted. So far, Malaysia and Brunei seem to have allowed themselves to imagine that China will be satiated once it has drunk its fill of the waters offshore Vietnam and the Philippines.

China has relied on assertions that its sailors and fishermen traversed "China's South Sea" in the past, evidently considering that and its growing naval strength to be sufficient argument. As long as the claims of the other littoral states remain ambiguous, the strategic deadlock will persist - a situation that creates optimal conditions for China to create more "facts" and to cut bilateral deals at the expense of other claimants.

Conversely, if the ASEAN states with most at stake can forge a common position anchored in principles of international law, they will have a far more compelling claim to support by others - once again, most notably, by the US.

David Brown is a retired American diplomat who writes on contemporary Vietnam. He may be reached atnworbd@gmail.com.

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


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