Collision Course in the South China Sea

Posted on August 23, 2012


Tensions in the South China Sea are ratcheting up. China and the Southeast Asian nations with competing territorial claims seem set on a collision course. Though still low, the probability of conflict is rising inexorably.

The current trajectory is lose-lose-lose for all concerned, including China, Southeast Asia and third-party countries in the Pacific Rim, such as the United States, that have a large stake in a peaceful South China Sea. At this point, the focus should not be resolving competing claims. Instead, diplomats must try to lower temperatures and get all sides to implement confidence-building measures to ensure peace and stability in the region. Only when cooler heads prevail can the concerned countries turn their attention to resolving the longer-term questions of the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the islands in the South China Sea.

The forty-year history of disputes in the region has seen a steady escalation in tension punctuated by occasional conflicts that have been quickly contained. Based on the vaguely defined “nine-dash line” (reduced from eleven dashes in 1953), China claims sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands and their adjacent seas in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The other side is represented by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and includes Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, which have more modest, but nevertheless competing, claims that overlap with each other and with China.

The latest escalation in friction started with a confrontation between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal. There also were competing international bids by China and Vietnam for oil exploration in areas of the South China Sea contested by the two countries. Efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to get the support of their ASEAN counterparts at a recent ministerial meeting resulted in ASEAN’s inability to issue a communiqué for the first time in the organization’s forty-five-year history.

Cambodia, ASEAN’s chair for 2012, refused to make reference to disputes in the South China Sea, starkly revealing the not-so-subtle influence of China. But thanks to shuttle diplomacy by Indonesia’s energetic foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, ASEAN emerged with a face-saving “common position” that reiterated six principles adhering to the declaration of a code of conduct and the Law of the Sea. ASEAN’s joint communiqué, however, still hasn’t been issued.

Following Vietnam’s June 2012 approval of a maritime law that declared sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, China objected strongly and upped the ante by announcing steps to actively administer the disputed islands and the Macclesfield Bank, as well as 772,000 square miles of ocean within its “nine-dashed line.” Sansha, a 1.5-kilometer islet in a disputed part of the South China Sea, has been declared a city that will include a local government responsible for overseeing the area. Legislators and a mayor have been elected, and the Chinese authorities announced plans to station a People’s Liberation Army garrison there to monitor—and defend, if necessary—China’s claims over the area.

These developments merely escalated tensions and served neither China’s broader strategic interests nor those of the Southeast Asian claimant nations.

China’s recent actions in the South China Sea are likely to severely damage its ability to influence the region and the world on other more important issues. For example, China’s economic strength relies in part on its economic integration with Southeast Asia that has helped build globally competitive production networks. That integration, which depends on good bilateral relations with its neighbors, is now jeopardized.

China already has few friends in the region. In a speech last year, Vice Premier Li Keqiang (expected to be China’s next prime minister) said that China sought to assure the world that its intentions are to cooperate with other countries to smooth its emergence as a global power. This idea of China’s peaceful rise has been a cornerstone of Beijing’s foreign-policy strategy. Unfortunately, its Southeast Asian neighbors do not see China’s actions matching its rhetoric.

By taking provocative actions in the South China Sea themselves, Vietnam and the Philippines are not altogether blameless in the latest series of events. They don’t need reminding, however, that a confrontation with China is not in their interests or those of the rest of Southeast Asia.

The region’s impressive economic performance over the last two decades has benefitted enormously from China’s growth engine. Major investments have been made in developing production networks, and continued good relations with China hold out promise for more. Worsening relations could put this at risk. More importantly, Southeast Asian countries recognize the dangers of any armed conflict with China, which could increase manifold if the United States were to be drawn into the fight.

Finally, the growing risk of conflict is not in the interest of the global community, especially for countries that rely on peaceful passage through the South China Sea and those on the Pacific Rim. The global economy, already suffering from myriad challenges, cannot afford yet another layer of uncertainty.

Certainly, the potential costs of conflict for the region and the world far outweigh any potential economic benefits contained in the seabed of the South China Sea—much of which is unknown in any case. Rather than the availability of hydrocarbons and fisheries, the South China Sea dispute is now increasingly being driven by domestic public opinion in the countries concerned that is fueled by military lobbies and strong nationalist sentiments.

Stepping back from the brink is in everyone’s interests. But this has to be done in a way that builds mutual trust and confidence. The current escalating tit-for-tat dynamic between China and the two ASEAN claimants—Vietnam and the Philippines—must be stopped, difficult as that may be, and perhaps even reversed. It necessarily will involve a series of carefully choreographed actions to gradually unwind present positions in a way that can satisfy their respective domestic constituencies.

Given his recent success at shuttle diplomacy, Indonesia’s Natalegawa could well be the man to thread this needle. Perhaps helped by a small team of internationally recognized statesmen, he could shuttle between the three key claimant countries—China, Philippines and Vietnam—to broker a deal. Natalegawa’s recently burnished credentials as a diplomat have earned him the confidence of both sides. Moreover, such an approach could satisfy Beijing’s reluctance to enter multilateral negotiations over the South China Sea while still arranging a collective stand-down.

But make no mistake, the real leadership and courage will need to come from the claimant countries themselves. Given the high stakes involved, let’s hope that such leadership is forthcoming.

Vikram Nehru

Much at stake for US as tensions rise in troubled China Seas

Vast oil reserves, trillion-dollar trade routes, fervent nationalist sentiments, competing territorial claims and bitter histories – the waters off the east coast of China are a sea of money and a sea of trouble.

Tensions have been rising for several years and recently hit new heights with activists landing on disputed islands, angry diplomatic exchanges and even a threat to deploy troops, prompting fears of an armed conflict that could potentially involve the United States, China, Japan and other nations.

The South China Sea has a myriad of competing claims of ownership: China staked out most of it in 1947 but its neighbors have never accepted it. The Spratly Islands alone are claimed by a total of five countries: China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.

All are eyeing oil and gas reserves thought to be so rich that the area has become dubbed “The Second Persian Gulf.” Also, an estimated $5 trillion worth of trade is shipped through its waters.

In a speech last month in CambodiaSecretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told members of the Asean group of nations – which includes the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia – that “maritime security” was one of a number of issues in the region of “central importance” to the U.S., and spoke of “transnational threats” as one area of U.S. government focus.

But perhaps the most dangerous potential flashpoint is farther north in the East China Sea. China and Japan both claim ownership of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands – known as Diaoyu in Chinese – with strong nationalist feelings on both sides.

Japanese nationalists land on island claimed by China

Just last week, the U.S. confirmed last week that the islands were covered by Article 5 of itssecurity treaty with Japan, which spells out that an armed attack against either state would prompt each to “act to meet the common danger.”

‘Intimidate its neighbors’
Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for International & Strategic Studies and a consultant to the U.S. government on East Asia, said if China decides to seize the Senkakus – currently administered by Japan – it would likely provoke a military confrontation.

An article in Foreign Policy magazine on Monday even speculated on who would win the “Sino-Japanese Naval War of 2012,” concluding it would end in a stalemate that would see Tokyo emerge with a political victory and potentially reverse China’s progress toward world-power status “in an afternoon.”

But Glaser told that she doubted war would break out, partly because China is aware that if they did seize the islands, “the U.S. would be there” for its ally Japan.

“I think there could be the possibility of some miscalculation – maybe there could be some exchange of fire, but an all-out war? No. I don’t think that’s on the cards,” she said.

Glaser said the situation was seen as a “test case of how China will act as it emerges as a great power.”

“The U.S. has an interest in trying to ensure that China does not intimidate its neighbors, that it does not use military force or other means to compel its neighbors to accept outcomes that are against their interest,” she said.

“Clearly if nations like the Philippines lose confidence in the U.S. ability to serve as the principal regional guarantor, they may embark on a potentially destabilizing arms build-up or accede to the demands of China. Neither would be in the interests of the U.S.,” she said.

“We do not want to set up a situation where the Chinese believe the Asia-Pacific is their backyard,” she added.

‘Unavoidable moment of truth’
Senator James Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Monday that China had recently created a new national prefecture covering disputed islands in the South China Sea, and had announced it would deploy troops to guard them.

He said that China had “for practical purposes … unilaterally decided to annex an area that extends eastward from the East Asian mainland as far as the Philippines, and nearly as far south as the Strait of Malacca.”

“The U.S., China and all of East Asia have now reached an unavoidable moment of truth. Sovereignty disputes in which parties seek peaceful resolution are one thing; flagrant, belligerent acts are quite another,” he added in the article.

For China’s part, memories of Japan’s violent invasion in the 1930s inflame nationalist sentiments.

Shi Yinhong, a leading scholar of international relations at Renmin University of China and a foreign policy adviser to China’s Cabinet, advocated the case for “new thinking” and more rational relations with Japan in 2005, but found himself under attack from Chinese nationalists for being “too soft” on the former enemy.

“Nationalism is the number one driving force complicating the problem,” he lamented, saying a “mutual hatred” existed between Chinese and Japanese nationalists.

China protests US State Department remarks on South China Sea

However, he told that the nationalists in China were “not strong enough to push the government to take military action without 100 percent necessity.”

“I don’t think the Chinese government will take any action to occupy the Diaoyu islands,” Shi said. “The governments in Beijing and Tokyo have been extraordinarily careful to prevent any direct conflict between the two armed forces and this determination is as strong as before.”

Crisis for Japan?
In the South China Sea, China has set up a new military garrison and a regular “armed patrol” system to enforce its territorial claims, prompting critical reaction from the United States and some Southeast Asian countries.

But despite this, Shi said that the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyus in the East China Sea was the “potentially more dangerous” one.

Last week activists from Hong Kong, the former British colony now part of China, landed on the islands and a group of Japanese politicians then swam out to raise the Japanese flag. That sparked protests in the southern Chinese city of Shenzen as well as in several other cities.

One of the Japanese protesters, Eiji Kosaka, a local politician from Tokyo’s Arakawa District, said it was “only natural” for him to protest, even though he and his fellow demonstrators were denied permission to land on the island by the Japanese authorities.

“Senkaku Islands of Ishikawa City, Okinawa, is on the verge of a crisis. Along with 10 other comrades, we felt the need to declare that this is Japanese territory,” Kosaka said.

Another protester, Satoru Mizushima, said that they had carried out the protest “to shed light on the fact that the Japanese government has abandoned its duty to defend people’s lives and property.”

PhotoBlog: Japan arrests activists on disputed island

Japan is also involved in disputes with Russia over the Southern Kuril islands and with South Korea over the Dokdo Islands, which have been under South Korean administrative control since 1952.

During the London Olympics, a member of South Korea’s men’s soccer team held up a sign handed to him by a fan proclaiming “Dokdo is our territory.”

PhotoBlog: South Korean coastguard clashes with armada of Chinese fishing boats

Earlier this month, South Korean President Lee Myungbak made a surprise visit to the island — a first by a Korean president — prompting Tokyo to take a more active role in staking Japan’s claim. For the first time in over 50 years, Japan has decided to take its case to the International Court of Justice in Hague.

‘What is ours is ours’
Japan is not the only U.S. ally in the region feeling the pressure as China becomes more powerful.

Henry Bensurto Jr., head of the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs under the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs, told that the Philippines had tried to resolve the dispute with China over the South China Sea “in a quiet way” for a long time.

“But as we do that nice diplomacy, we are slowly losing our own territory,” he said. “It’s not good to have a picture of a strong country overpowering the small country. That is not an acceptable scenario.”

“I think this issue is going to be there for a long time, I don’t think there’s a thought that it’s going to be solved overnight. We’re working for the long haul,” he added.

report in July by the International Crisis Group said, “At least five significant skirmishes were reported within the first five months of 2011, although the Philippines’ lack of modern surveillance equipment made it difficult to substantiate accusations.”

“In response, the Aquino government began to ratchet up diplomatic efforts, accelerate military procurement and refer to the South China Sea as the ‘West Philippine Sea’ in all official communications,” the report said. “The president declared in July 2011 that ‘what is ours is ours’ in reference to Reed Bank [one of the disputed areas].”

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam might be expected to have better relations with China, but disputes over territory have raised similar tensions.

In 1988 the two countries fought over disputed islands, resulting in China occupying the Paracel Islands. According to the International Crisis Group report, this “led many Vietnamese to believe that China would not hesitate to use force again to settle sovereignty disputes.”

“Nationalist sentiments in Vietnam run particularly high in its disputes with China and put pressure on the government to stand up to Beijing,” the report said. “The bitter nature of the disputes has led observers to surmise that Vietnam would not back down from a military confrontation with China, despite China’s overwhelming military capabilities, if only to raise the cost for Beijing.”

To many, the situation appears deadlocked, with China arguing there should be one-to-one talks with Vietnam and other neighbor states, while they push for negotiations involving all parties.

“It’s kind of a pessimistic situation but what can we hope for…?” Nhuyen Thi Lan Anh, deputy director of the Center for South China Sea Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, told

“At least we need rules of the game. If no one knows the rules of the game, we can get out of control, and in the end of course peace and stability will be hampered.”


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