Geopolitical chess game heats up South China Sea

Posted on August 12, 2012

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Establishment ceremony: Soldiers raise the national flag during a party introducing Sansha City on the island of Yongxing

China’s move to set up a military garrison at Sansha on disputed Yongxing Island (also known as Woody Island) in the Xisha chain (claimed by the Philippines as the Paracels), along with creating a city administration for the island which has heretofore had few permanent inhabitants, is escalating tensions in the South China Sea (or, as Manila has it, the West Philippine Sea)—the key theater in Washington’s new cold war with Beijing. On Aug. 4, Beijing summoned a senior US diplomat, the embassy’s deputy chief of mission Robert Wang, over State Department criticism of the move. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement the day before that the US is “concerned by the increase in tensions in the West Philippine Sea and [we] are monitoring the situation closely.”

Luo Baoming, party chief of Hainan province, gave a keynote speech inaugurating the new “city” of Sansha that was established to administer the Xisha, Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) and Nansha (Spratly) islands and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea. “The provincial government will be devoted to turning the city into an important base to safeguard China’s sovereignty and serve marine resource development,” he said. Parts of these territories are variously claimed by the PhilippinesVietnamTaiwanMalaysia andBrunei. (IDSA, Aug. 7; AFP, Aug. 5; China Daily, July 25)

An Aug. 9 commentary in China Daily portrayed these claims as a recent invention, especially in the case of Vietnam:

For ages, China has explored and tapped the entire aforementioned areas in the South China Sea and successive Chinese governments have ruled over various parts of the islands and waters for more than 10 centuries. It is on this basis that the Chinese government officially reiterated its sovereignty over the islands and waters, along with Dongsha Islands, in the 20th century.

This met with no international objection until a couple of decades ago. The Philippines had limited its westernmost territory east of Huangyan Island, the easternmost island of China’s Zhongsha Islands. Till the 1970s, Hanoi agreed repeatedly and officially, in various written and verbal forms, with China on Chinese sovereignty over Nansha and Xisha islands.

It was only after the 1970s and after Vietnam was united that it started to negate its previous statements. Similarly, it was in the past decade that the Philippines started expanding its territorial claim to the Huangyan Island.

There may be disputes on sovereignty over the overlapping waters off the continental shelf between a country or countries ringing the South China Sea. However, there was no dispute between them and China over the islands and islets in the South China Sea until the 1970s.

And indeed there is an irony here. Of course back in the ’60s, when Hanoi needed China’s aid in the war against the Americans, it wasn’t going to make a big deal over claims to the South China Sea. After the war, fear of being reduced to Chinese suzerainty prompted Hanoi to line up with Moscow in the Sino-Soviet split, and such claims became politically permissible. Today, Hanoi’s fear of China remains but the reduced Russians are no longer a significant factor in the region—while the US is beefing up its military presence in the Asia-Pacific sphere. So Vietnam is naturally if paradoxically tilting to the US.

India’s Institue for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA, linked to New Delhi’s Defense Ministry) sees a resource grab as the agenda behind China’s move, exploiting terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS):

As per Article 121 of UNCLOS which covers island regimes, an island would have to sustain human habitation or economic life in order to have an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. While the limited land mass of Yongxing may not be able to sustain any such activity, the proximity of rich fishing grounds and potential oil fields would prompt China to stake a claim for the island’s maritime zones as per article 121. These maritime zones also include a territorial sea and contiguous zone. The mathematics are interesting as the land mass of around 13 square kilometres would accord jurisdiction over 2 million square kilometres of waters. This would push the 200 nautical mile limit of China’s EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone] outwards.

And, of course, disputed hydrocarbon fields are at issue in the dispute now similarly heating up between China and Japan over the East China Sea

Bill Weinberg

Cambodian Ambassador Packs for Home

The fighting within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) over its relationship with China and the disputed islands in the seas that divide them has struck another sour chord with the Cambodian Ambassador to Manila Hos Sereythonh being sent home.

This came after he accused The Philippines and Vietnam of playing “dirty politics” in their push to establish a united ASEAN stand among its 10 members for dealing with China on the issue. Beijing wants disputes involving the Spratly and Paracel islands dealt with on a bilateral basis.

The resource-rich islands are claimed entirely by China and all or in part by Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and straddle important trading routes through the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea and the East Sea in Vietnam.

Claiming he was ill, Hos did not heed the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA)  repeated summons last week.  He instead sent his Second Secretary Tan Chandaravuth to accept the note seeking an explanation to the situation. Tan, who attended a recent DFA event, also reportedly refused to comment.

At the July summit in Phnom Penh, ASEAN had for the first time in its history failed to issue a joint communiqué after heated bickering over the islands amid claims that Cambodia was abrogating its ASEAN responsibilities and siding with China, by far its biggest financial backer.

However, The Philippines are playing down speculation of a rift between the two countries and that divisions had plummeted relations to the lowest depths in years.

“I don’t think it affects the bilateral relations at all and I’d like to think we’re looking forward to healthy bilateral relations with Cambodia,” Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said.

Perhaps, but The Philippines is unlikely to patch-up its differences with China any time soon. Both countries are enlisting international oil and gas companies to prospect in the waters surrounding the Spratlys. Fishing fleets are also being encouraged into the area with China also deploying a gunboat diplomatic policy sending naval vessels into shoals as far south as Palawan.

That approach has led to charges of Chinese bullying and belligerence, but it also stems from senior politicians in Beijing wanting to look tough while playing on nationalist sentiment, hoping to capitalize on the upcoming Communist party congress when a new crop of leaders will be chosen.

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Luke Hunt

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