Asia’s Roiling Sea

Posted on August 19, 2012

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The South China Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways, has been contested off and on for centuries. These days, with the sea bounded by some of Asia’s most vibrant economies — China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia — the competition has become a virtual free-for-all. Confrontations over territorial control are alarmingly frequent and could get out of hand, with dangerous consequences.

It is not hard to see why everyone wants a piece of the action. The sea is not only an important trade route but is also rich in oil, natural gas, fishing and mineral resources. Nations are fighting over islands and even specks of rocks to stake their claims.

Both China and its neighbors bear responsibility for ratcheting up the tension. But there is no question that China’s economic power and its assertive use of its navy and commercial vessels to project influence has changed the regional dynamics and worried many of its smaller neighbors. Beijing’s ambitions are large: the president of a Chinese research institute, Wu Shicun, told The Times’s Jane Perlez that China wanted to control no less than 80 percent of the sea.

The United States is plainly concerned, and rightly so. In recent months, for instance, China has enlarged its army garrison on a bit of land known as Yongxing Island. Mr. Wu said the aim was to allow Beijing to “exercise sovereignty over all land features inside the South China Sea,” including more than 40 islands “now occupied illegally” by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. The Obama administration protested that this provocative act risked further inflaming the situation. In return, a leading Chinese newspaper told the United States to “shut up” and stop meddling in matters of Chinese sovereignty.

Washington should ignore such diplomatic outbursts, and continue to play a role in seeking a peaceful resolution to such disputes. In addition to China’s activities on Yongxing Island, there was standoff for months earlier this year between lightly armed vessels belonging to the Philippines and China at the Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines. The tensions also extend to the East China Sea, where Japan defused a potential standoff with Beijing on Friday by deporting 14 Chinese citizens who were arrested on or near another disputed island.

China would prefer to deal with territorial disputes bilaterally because it thinks it can strong-arm its neighbors. The United States has to take a neutral position on the claims but has proposed a fairer way of settling them — through negotiation and “without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without the use of force.”

Washington’s should not be the sole voice for a peaceful resolution. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Vietnam, the Philippines and others, could make a real contribution by adopting a binding code of conduct for managing the South China Sea disputes. But so far it has not.

That makes it all the more important for the administration to continue to invest more effort in the South China Sea dispute, both working with China and strengthening alliances with its rivals.

N.Y. Times

China unafraid to use force to solve disputes

China is not afraid to use force to tackle disputes with its neighbors. In the East Sea, China used force three times to occupy new islands.

Below is extract from the “Vietnam’s Hallmarks in the East Sea” book by Dr. Tran Cong Truc, former head of the Government Border Committee, which analyzes China’s measures to realize its ambition of controlling the entire East Sea.

China has hectically built marine-related law as the legal foundation for implementing is marine strategy, the Chinese Congress ratified the Law on territorial waters and the contiguous zone in 1992, the Law on baseline in 1996, the Law on exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in 1998, the Law on managing and using China’s sea in 2001 and the Law on fishery in 2004. This country is compiling the Law on managing and using islands.

China has also set up a specialized body on marine management – the Ocean Department, with a system of agencies from the district to the national level.

China has made every effort to develop its defense potential, particularly the navy and air force. It expects to become an international military super-power by 2015 and its ships can reach the far-away oceans.

The fact shows that China is unafraid to use force in settling disputes with its neighbors. In the East Sea, China used force three times to occupy new islands.

China has also strengthened and expanded its presence in Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. It has built seaports and a 2,500m runway on Hoang Sa and turned this island into its military base. Within a short period of time, China also turned shoals into artificial islands and bases.

China is also ready to expand its occupancy, strengthen its patrol and control as well as scientific activities, resource exploration in the East Sea, to use military forces to support its oil and gas exploration activities in the sea, to develop marine-exploration equipment and technology.

China has the most abundant data on marine resources, including the resources in Vietnam’s waters.

China is implementing a policy to both entice and divide members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); to diminish the role and influence of other big countries like the US, Japan; and to focus the spearhead to Vietnam.

When it was forced to sign the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) between ASEAN and China., China tried to add some clauses to not hinder its plot of “setting aside disputes to explore the sea together” and to divide ASEAN members.

China endeavored to reject the East Sea disputes out of the agenda of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the non-allied movement. Especially, China is determined to object multilateral negotiation. It only prefers bilateral negotiation although the East Sea disputes are related to many parties.

China has urged countries in the region to implement the policy “setting aside disputes to explore the sea together.” China argues that this policy shows China’s good will, is an acceptable temporary measure for disputes in the overlapped continental shelf, does not harm related parties’ viewpoints on sovereignty, is a constructive, practical and the most feasible method, which facilitate all sides to explore marine resources, to strengthen friendship and cooperative ties and to contribute to maintaining peaceful and stable environment in the sea.

Actually, this strategy aims to maintain and strengthen China’s sovereignty claims in the East Sea. At the same time, China can exploit natural resources to serve its economic development and energy security and preserves its “peaceful” face. The strategy can also help China court the international community’s support, enhance its political influence in the region and restrict the role of other big countries.

The waters where China wants to “set aside disputes to explore the sea together” with related countries are all within the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf of other countries under the UNCLOS, where have great oil and gas deposit. China’s proposal, therefore, is unacceptable.

Briefly, China’s policy of gradually strengthen and expand its control over the East Sea, using its position in the East Sea to deter countries in the region, restricting the role of the US and Japan is consistent and unchanged.

According to many international experts and scholars, China’s policy is the basic source causing instability in the East Sea. However, in the next 5-10 years, China needs a peaceful environment to implement its “peaceful rise” and “making a better China,” so this country has to consider the interest and the attitude of related super-powers, especially the US, Japan and India.

Tran Cong Truc

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