Tag Archive | "south china sea"

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China’s expansionnism protested in France: Press release | Collectif Vietnam

25 January 2016

More than 300 Vietnamese and international friends of Collectif Vietnam gathered on January 23, 2016, in front of the Wall for Peace (Paris 7th) to call the international community to strongly protest against “Chinese expansionnism” in the South China Sea (” East Sea “for Vietnam,” West Philippine Sea” for the Philippines) to protect freedom of air and maritime navigation, as well as to avoid risk of war.

The appeal says that “;China, since 1974, has been violating Vietnam’s sovereignty, undermining respect for international law, and threatening the security, peace and freedom of navigation, not only to coastal countries but also to all countries with vessels circulating this route, including France and Europe”.

This gathering is the culmination of protest of 30 Vietnamese associations in France against China’s recent installation of the drilling platform HD-981 and against China’s test flights in the disputed area, respectively in the Gulf of Tonkin and Fiery Cross Reef (Chu Thap). These acts are considered “illegal” by the organizers according to the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS).

To recall, it was the fourth time since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 that the Vietnamese community and their international friends took to the streets of Paris to protest against the provocative actions of the Chinese government with the creation of the city “Tam Sa” in 2007, the violent incident between Vietnam drilling ships and those of China surveillance in 2011, the installation of China’s drilling platform in 2014 and in 2016, test flights and installation of another drilling platform. All of these incidents occurred in areas contested by several countries, especially China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

About South China Sea: The South China Sea is located in a strategic area in Southeast Asia, bringing together three main archipelagos (Paracels, Spratlys, Pratas), Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Reef. It is part of the sea routes and the busiest straits in the world. Several territorial conflicts have been observed in these areas. The Philippines has demanded for international justice at the Court of Arbitration in The Hague regarding their maritime disputes with China, challenging the legal basis of the territorial claims of China.

About Collectif Vietnam: Collectif Vietnam is a collective gathering of Vietnamese citizens or Vietnamese origin and Vietnam’s friends of all generations, living, studying and working in France, who support Vietnam.

Press Kit: https://goo.gl/Zm6wfH

Contact: Tuong Nguyen, Associate Editor, SEAS Issues (nhtuong@gmail.com)

Annex 1: Photos (cf. https://goo.gl/nWLkm5)

© Duc Truong, UGVF

© Duc Truong, UGVF

 

 © Duc Truong, UGVF

 © Hoai Tuong Nguyen, Future Institute

 

Annex 2: Videos

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File:Paracel Islands-CIA WFB Map-2.JPG

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Vietnamese scholars planning to send a letter to the UN on 40th year of Paracels battle* – by Tinh Le | SEASF, BDTP

11 January 2014

by Tinh Le - SEASFBDTP - The 19th of January this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Chinese military intervention on the Paracel archipelago. Since 40 years, China occupied the whole archipelago.

However, following international law, Paracel archipelago is always under the sovereignty of Viet Nam. The Charter of the United Nations prohibits the acquisition of territory by force.

Viet Nam must always remind the world of this obvious breach of international law of China, always affirms its sovereignty on the archipelago, and urges Chinato accept the submission of the Paracel archipelago dispute to the arbitration of the International Court of Justice, the most appropriate organization to resolve territorial disputes between States.

 

File:Paracel Islands-CIA WFB Map-2.JPG

Position of the Battle of the Paracel Islands (C) CIA

That is the content of the letter we send to the United Nations, with the strong belief that a world of peace and justice exists only when each country respects international law.

The letter is written by two civil society activists striving for the justice for Viet Namand other small countries in the disputes on the South China Sea: Southeast-Asia Sea Research Foundation and the BDTP Group.

The letter is reviewed by world’s leading experts on international law, by senior civil activists, with all the seriousness and the highest caution.

Because we would like to bring the voices of Vietnamese and people loving justice around the world to the highest and most competent legal authorities of the world:

  • United Nations General Secretary
  • United Nations Rule of Law Unit
  • United Nations First Committee (Disarmament and International Security)
  • International Court of Justice

Let’s remind the world the flagrant violation of international law whenChinainvaded the Paracel archipelago in 1974. Let’s urgeChinato submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice.

Please join us in signing this letter: http://goo.gl/qagq5R

One voice may be small, but a million will change the world.

 


(*) Tinh Le is member of Southeast-Asia Sea Research Foundation and BDTP Group.  The orginal title submitted by Tinh Le: Press Release: “Letter sent to the United Nations on the 40th anniversary of Chinese military intervention on the Paracel archipelag”

 

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Map: Scarborough Shoal

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Fishermen caught out by politics of South China Sea – by Tomas Etzler | CNN

02 March 2013





    

Luzon, Philippines (CNN) – A year ago, a fisherman Efren Forones came back from fishing trips with up to three and half tons of fish. In return he was able to buy 15 to 20 kilos of rice for his family every month and was planning to send at least one of his six children to college.

Not any more.

He now returns with just 400 kilos of catch at best, meaning he can only afford one to two kilos of rice a month, while school for his children is an expensive luxury and out of the question.

The reason? He says he can longer fish in the fertile waters around Scarborough Shoal.

A cluster of uninhabitable sand banks and small rocks set in a shallow azure water lagoon about 130 miles (200 km) west from the Philippine island of Luzon, Scarborough Shoal is one of a number of territories at the center of an international dispute in the South China Sea.

Both the Philippines and China lay claim to it.

Tense standoff

The long-term tensions between the two nations escalated last April during a one-month stand off between the two nations, after Manila accused Chinese boats of fishing illegally in the area. When a Philippines navy vessel inspected the boats it found “large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks” inside one of the boats, according to the Philippine government. Manila then reported that two Chinese surveillance ships had taken up position at the mouth of the lagoon, blocking the way to the fishing boats and “preventing the arrest” of the fishermen. The vessels stretched a cable across the mouth of the lagoon, which also prevented Filipino fishermen from going there, according to the Philippines coast guard.

Earlier this year, the Philippine government took its feud with China to a United Nations tribunal, a move that Beijing has rejected. In an article on state-run CCTV last month, China pointed to a code of conduct it signed in 2002, known as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, with fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It said the declaration expected that relevant disputes be solved through friendly talks and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.

That brings little comfort to the struggling fishermen in communities in west Luzon, the nearest region to Scarborough Shoal — also known as Panatag Shoal here or Huangyan Island to the Chinese. One of them is Masinloc, a municipality of 40,000 people, which relies on the seas for almost 80% of its income, according to the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. It says thousands of fishermen have lost their regular jobs as catches decline.

Forones is one of them.

The 52 year old has been fishing in the waters off Masinloc for 22 years. He lives with his family in a traditional bamboo house mounted on pillars above the sea. His youngest daughter is four years old. Forones does not own a boat but used to be hired as a fisherman and paid a minimum of $85 dollars for a trip. Nobody is hiring now. He has tried to rent boats on his own and fish with his neighbors, but the little catch they bring back barely covers the rental fee and fuel.

Map: Scarborough Shoal

He says the Shoal is the most important fishing ground in this region. “They (the Chinese) shoo us away, will not allow Filipinos to come near the area,” he says. “They are the only ones that can fish there, not us. We lost Scarborough and it is hard. We earn nothing.”

Beijing is unwavering in its claims. As recently as last month, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Chinese surveillance vessels were carrying out regular missions in the South China Sea.

The Xinhua report cited Liu Cigui, director of the State Oceanic Administration, as saying that China would continue the patrols “to secure the nation’s maritime rights and interests” in areas it claims as its territorial waters.

China’s claim on the area dates back to 1279 during the Yuan Dynasty, when Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing conducted a survey. Then in 1935, China declared sovereignty over 132 islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, with the Scarborough Shoal — or Huangyan — included as a part of the Zhongsha Islands, according to Xinhua.

However, Forones is in little doubt who the lagoon, which lies within what the Philippines declares as its Exclusive Economic Zone, belongs to.

“Of course it is ours. We own Scarborough,” he insists. “But China is trying to get it from us. Our government should fix that. We should seek help from the United States if the Philippine government cannot handle it alone.”

Nowhere else to go

Forones and his wife plan to stay in Masinloc, for now. He will try to start diving for shellfish. By selling clams, mussels and oysters, they can make around $5 a day. Enough to buy rice and other basic food to feed the family. “There is no other place where we can go. I will stay here, get shells from nearby and help my husband to make living,” Forones’ wife, Gemma, says.

The situation is similar in Subic, a town 55 miles (88 km) south of Masinloc. It used to host one of the biggest American naval bases outside the United States, before it closed in 1991.

Operators of the fishing market on the outskirts of the town of 90,000 say business is down 50% since the fishermen were blocked from fishing where they wanted to at Scarborough. Many fishermen here share a similar story to their counterparts further north.

“When we went there, a Chinese vessel, the Chinese Marine Surveillance blocked our path,” says Ronnie Drio, 46-year-old father of eight children. “As we managed to get past through it, it looked like they called another one because a different ship appeared and blocked our way again.

“That’s when we got trapped. Then a Chinese man stepped out. He looked like their highest officer. He flashed a sign that we had to leave immediately. We were kicked out like pigs.”

A number of fishermen have already left Subic and Masinloc and many more are considering it. One of them, 58-year-old Tolomeo “Lomi” Forones, is Efren’s cousin. He’s been a fisherman for 30 years but now makes a living as a motorbike taxi driver. He makes around $2 on a good day.

“Our income was higher when we used to fish at Scarborough. I even used to save money. But now we earn just enough for daily consumption and sometimes what we earn is not even enough to provide food.”

Dangerous waters

He still does occasional fishing trips but against his wife’s wish. Janet Forones wants to leave Masinloc and their low income is not the only reason: “Who would not get worried when they are out there? What if they get shot?” She was referring to the presence of the Chinese boats.

What puzzles the fishermen here most is the speed the whole situation has changed. Although the Philippine and Chinese governments have disputed each other’s claim to the lagoon for many years, they could fish at Scarborough alongside Chinese fishermen up until a few months ago.

“I do not know why they don’t like us or why they do not want us within that area. If Americans were still in the region, the Chinese would have never came to Scarborough because they would be scared. If our government allows the U.S. to come back over here, its OK with me,” she says, referring to Washington’s commitment to its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed last year.

But the solution to the dispute is as distant as ever. Litigation at the United Nations could last years. Most of the local fishermen do not have so much time. So while the governments squabble, many of these fishermen and their families will have to leave the only life they have known and start from scratch somewhere else.

 

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Fishermen are silhouetted against the early morning light as they return from fishing in Karachi

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Tensions rapidly escalating around South China Sea – by Joel Brinkley | Politico

24 February 2013

by Joel Brinkley  | Politico - China’s assertion that almost all of the South China Sea and adjacent waters are part of its territory seems to be growing more dangerous with each passing week.

Fishermen are silhouetted against the early morning light as they return from fishing in Karachi's China Creek. | Reuters

China’s territorial assertions have alienated almost everyone in its neighborhood. | Reuters

China and Japan are scrambling fighter jets in their faceoff over disputed islands. Last month, China “painted” a Japanese military helicopter and destroyer with weapons-lock radar — bringing harsh criticism from Japanese and American military officials.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and several other states are responding angrily to their own territorial disputes with China, so that a common refrain among analysts and observers has become “one stupid mistake could start a war.” Already, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, has told the state’s military to “prepare for war.”

But as this crisis continues and worsens month after month, the one player seldom heard from is the United States. And China is making it plain that Beijing is little worried about America.

“From a Chinese perspective, 2013 appears to bear similarities to 1913,” Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, the Foreign Ministry’s official think tank, said last month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.

One century ago “marked the rise of the West,” he intoned. But today, “the opposite is happening with money, power and influence flowing away from America and the West into Asia.

“It’s déjà vu all over again” — except in reverse, he said.

Ruan, like many other Chinese, also blames the United States military’s “pivot” to Asia for stirring trouble in the region. But in fact, China’s aggressive expansionism began even before that — born of two domestic political needs.

Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Peking University, noted in an interview that a few years ago some in the military were growing restless and wanted to start some kind of military conflict with Japan, China’s longtime adversary, to regain their relevance. President Hu Jintao was unwilling to go along with that.

But as China’s social and economic situation continued to deteriorate, Xia and others said, in the spring of 2009 another opportunity arose for re-establishing military relevance — while also distracting disgruntled Chinese with a new foreign conflict. That’s when most nations had to file papers with the United Nations stating their offshore jurisdictions as part of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Much earlier, in 1946, pushed by the West to clarify its maritime position, the Republic of China had issued an official map showing its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. Few paid attention then because a few years later the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang and seized control of the country.

But in 2009, when it came time for each nation to give the United Nations documentation of its claim to maritime territory, the Chinese government officially submitted that 1946 map. Since then, it has repeatedly asserted that nearly the entire sea and adjacent waters are “an inherent part of Chinese territory.”

“This was the first time China had brought this up since 1946,” Yann-huei Song, a research fellow at the Institute of European and American studies in Taipei, Taiwan, said in an interview.

So China’s claim that U.S. provocation is responsible for the South China Sea dispute is wrong. President Barack Obama didn’t first raise his notion of the pivot from the Middle East to Asia until late in 2011. And since then, the State Department has repeatedly said it would not take sides in the debate — even after China changed the map of its territory printed in Chinese passports to include 80 percent of the South China Sea. (Vietnam refuses to stamp those new passports. Instead, it stamps a piece of paper and inserts that into the passport.)

Visiting the region last fall, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Asian states to draw up a code of conduct for the nations bordering the South China Sea but added: “The United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims or land features” — even though the farthest point China now claims is more than 1,200 miles away from the Chinese mainland. (One reason the U.S. may be deferring is that Congress never ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty. Republicans blocked ratification once again last year. )

That’s just fine with Beijing. “China doesn’t want the U.S. involved in any way,” said Jose Cuisia Jr., the Philippines’ ambassador to the United States, at a Stanford University conference.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and several other states are responding angrily to their own territorial disputes with China, so that a common refrain among analysts and observers has become “one stupid mistake could start a war.” Already, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, has told the state’s military to “prepare for war.”

But as this crisis continues and worsens month after month, the one player seldom heard from is the United States. And China is making it plain that Beijing is little worried about America.

“From a Chinese perspective, 2013 appears to bear similarities to 1913,” Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, the Foreign Ministry’s official think tank, said last month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.

One century ago “marked the rise of the West,” he intoned. But today, “the opposite is happening with money, power and influence flowing away from America and the West into Asia.

“It’s déjà vu all over again” — except in reverse, he said.

Ruan, like many other Chinese, also blames the United States military’s “pivot” to Asia for stirring trouble in the region. But in fact, China’s aggressive expansionism began even before that — born of two domestic political needs.

Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Peking University, noted in an interview that a few years ago some in the military were growing restless and wanted to start some kind of military conflict with Japan, China’s longtime adversary, to regain their relevance. President Hu Jintao was unwilling to go along with that.

But as China’s social and economic situation continued to deteriorate, Xia and others said, in the spring of 2009 another opportunity arose for re-establishing military relevance — while also distracting disgruntled Chinese with a new foreign conflict. That’s when most nations had to file papers with the United Nations stating their offshore jurisdictions as part of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Much earlier, in 1946, pushed by the West to clarify its maritime position, the Republic of China had issued an official map showing its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. Few paid attention then because a few years later the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang and seized control of the country.

But in 2009, when it came time for each nation to give the United Nations documentation of its claim to maritime territory, the Chinese government officially submitted that 1946 map. Since then, it has repeatedly asserted that nearly the entire sea and adjacent waters are “an inherent part of Chinese territory.”

“This was the first time China had brought this up since 1946,” Yann-huei Song, a research fellow at the Institute of European and American studies in Taipei, Taiwan, said in an interview.

So China’s claim that U.S. provocation is responsible for the South China Sea dispute is wrong. President Barack Obama didn’t first raise his notion of the pivot from the Middle East to Asia until late in 2011. And since then, the State Department has repeatedly said it would not take sides in the debate — even after China changed the map of its territory printed in Chinese passports to include 80 percent of the South China Sea. (Vietnam refuses to stamp those new passports. Instead, it stamps a piece of paper and inserts that into the passport.)

 

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Unhappy Neighbors – by Ngo Vinh Long | The Cairo Review

10 February 2013

by Ngo Vinh Long | The Cairo Review - Speaking to diplomats, businessmen and journalists at the British Foreign Office in November, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia emphasized the need for “norms and principles” in resolving disputes in the South China Sea. Why did PresidentYudhoyono, who was spending a week in London at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II as the first leader to visit Britain during the year of her Diamond Jubilee, feel that he had to bring up the South China Sea disputes at such a time?

 

Chinese marines in the South China Sea, near Nansha Islands, April 10, 2010. Zha Chunming/ Xinhua Press/Corbis

After a member of the audience asked what Indonesia, the leading nation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could do if China did not share his views, President Yudhoyono recalled what he had said to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at a summit conference in Bali and again to Chinese President Hu Jintao at a meeting in Beijing: without forward movement on a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea, the whole region could “easily become a flashpoint.” He added that the two Chinese leaders had concurred with his assessment.

President Yudhoyono added, however, that he had become quite concerned after ASEAN foreign ministers failed to reach a CoC agreement at a meeting in Cambodia in July 2012. He did not mention the role played by China in getting the Cambodian government to sabotage the pact. He only said that since then, Indonesia has done its utmost to bring about a consensus among ASEAN nations on the issue. He also did not mention the fact that at an international conference on “Peace and Stability in the South China Sea and the Asia Pacific Region” held in Jakarta in September, most of the participants expressed pessimism as long as China continued to exert military and economic power in area within the U-shape line demarcating its self-declared zone of sovereignty.

The U-Shape Line

What is the U-shape line and why is it seen as such a threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea area and the Asia Pacific Region?

On May 7, 2009, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) officially submitted—in two separate letters—to the secretary general of the United Nations a map with a nine-dotted, U-shape line with the following identical words: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.”

This was the first time China sent the map, without any coordinates, to an intergovernmental body, principally in response to the Vietnamese-Malayan joint submission and Vietnamese individual submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) of the United Nations. Under the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the littoral states of Southeast Asia are entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in waters up to 200 nautical miles from their coastlines. In order for coastal states to expand the outer limit up to 350 nautical miles, they have to obtain approval from the CLCS.

The origin of the U-shape line can be traced to a map published by the Department of the Interior of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1946. The map included a U-shape line consisting of eleven intermittent dashes enclosing most of the South China Sea, supposedly because Chinese had discovered the area during the Han Dynasty. Even though the dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin were erased from the map presented to the UN in 2009, partly because a bilateral agreement between China and Vietnam on the demarcation of the area had been reached, the U-shape in the latest map still cut deeply into the EEZs of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines responded with their own notes to the CLCS to reject China’s claim and its map. Vietnam’s note maintained that China’s claim as represented by the U-shape line “has no legal, historical, or factual basis, therefore is null and void.” Indonesia’s note said that the map “clearly lacks international legal basis” and is tantamount to upsetting the UNCLOS. The Philippines’ note said that China’s claim to most of the South China Sea “would have no basis under international law, specifically UNCLOS.”

Under UNCLOS, the South China Sea is divided into three areas:

—The 200 nautical mile EEZs stretching out from the coastal lines of Vietnam, Chinese Hainan Island/Province, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

—The islands, islets, rocks, and reefs in the Paracels and the Spratlys. According to Article 121 of UNCLOS: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” And islands cannot have maritime space beyond twelve nautical miles.

—The international waters area outside of the EEZs, the Paracels, and the Spratlys. Many of the islands, islets, rocks, and reefs in the Spratlys are actually situated inside the EEZs of the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

In 1974, China used force to take over the entire Paracels, which at that time was under the administration of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), killing at least fifty-three Vietnamese sailors. Again, in 1988, China took possession of the Johnson Reef in the Spratlys from the Vietnamese. Chinese gunboats sank Vietnamese transport ships supporting a landing party of Vietnamese soldiers, killing sixty-four Vietnamese soldiers and injuring many others. In 1995, China also took over the Mischief Reef, which is 150 miles west of the Palawan, the Philippines’s nearest land mass, and proceeded immediately with the construction of military structures on the reef.

It is seemingly based on these and other occupations that China claims “indisputable” sovereignty over all the island groupings in the South China Sea and uses them to justify attempts to control maritime space 200 nautical miles beyond them. For example, in response to an official protest by the Philippines following China’s assertive activities in the region, especially in the Spratlys (called the Nansha Islands by China), China sent a note to the United Nations on April 14, 2011, that asserted: “China’s Nansha Islands is fully entitled to Territorial Sea, Exclusive Economic Zones, and Continental Shelf.”

In June 2012, China’s State Council announced the establishment of the City of Sansha (Three Sands), a prefectural-level city to be headquartered on Woody Island in the disputed Paracels, to directly administer “the Xisha, Nansha, Zhongsha Islands and their adjacent islets and waters.” Xisha (Western Sands), Nansha (Southern Sands), and Zhongsha (Middle Sands) are Chinese names of three disputed archipelagos—otherwise known as the Paracels, the Spratlys, and the Macclesfield Banks—respectively. On July 24, 2012, Sansha officially announced that it had established a prefectural government; and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also said that it would soon establish a military garrison there to serve as the command headquarters for military units operating in the South China Sea area. The headquarters of China’s Southern Fleet—the most powerful of China’s three naval fleets—and China’s entire marine force with some 20,000 soldiers, are presently stationed on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province.

Many countries in Southeast Asia—among them the Philippines and Vietnam—protested China’s provocative actions, especially the establishment of the new military garrison. In August, the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying that the move risked raising tensions and was “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences.” On the same day, the Chinese foreign ministry called in a senior U.S. diplomat to protest the State Department’s remarks. Chinese Foreign Ministry
Spokesman Qin Gang also issued a statement, which repeated China’s contention that it has absolute sovereignty over the sea and islands in the South China Sea, and so has the right to set up a city to administer the region. In September, the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, declared flatly during a four-hour appearance with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square that “China has sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and the adjacent waters. There is plentiful historical and jurisprudential evidence for that.”

Even if China could rightfully claim sovereignty over the disputed islands in the South China Sea and exclusive zones as well as continental shelf rights around them, this would still not justify the U-shape line given that it cuts deeply into the EEZs and undisputed territories of other countries. Thus, China’s actions raise the question of whether its real intention is to turn undisputed territories into disputed ones in order to flex its muscles and force other countries to yield to its demands, and not only in the South China Sea but also in other domains.

In 2011, for example, Chinese ships twice cut the cables of oil exploration vessels well within Vietnam’s EEZ and drove off an oil exploration vessel in Philippine waters. Then in late June 2012 China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) issued nine exploration leases in blocks that fall entirely within Vietnam’s EEZ. CNOOC executives and officials at China’s Ministry of Land and Resources have given estimates that there are approximately 40 billion tons of oil equivalent in the South China Sea, most of which is believed to be natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, one Chinese estimate puts the sea’s gas reserves at 2,000 trillion cubic feet. That would be enough to meet China’s gas needs for more than 400 years based on 2011 consumption levels. According to a May 2012 statement by Zhong Hua, CNOOC chief financial officer, the company aims to produce 500 million barrels of oil equivalent a day from the deepwater of the South China Sea by 2020—up from nothing today.

Oil is but one factor in China’s strategy of roiling the troubled waters. Since 2009, China has also enforced an annual unilateral fishing ban in the South China Sea, confiscating fishing boats from other countries—mostly from Vietnam—as well as arresting and injuring many fishermen. In April 2012, when the Philippine navy prepared to arrest Chinese fishermen who were operating illegally in the Scarborough Shoal, China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels arrived on the scene and blocked the entrance to the lagoon thus preventing the arrest of the Chinese illegal fishing boats. During a two-month stand-off, China dispatched nearly one hundred fishing craft to occupy the shoal. In June, the Philippines announced that an agreement had been reached with China for a mutual withdrawal of ships. Later, however, Chinese ships returned and have maintained effective control of the shoal and the waters around it ever since. In addition to the occupation of the shoal, China also applied economic sanctions on the Philippines by banning the import of bananas and cancelling tourist charter flights.

China and Vietnam

For Vietnam, pressures from China have been multi-faceted and more heavy-handed than those applied on the Philippines and other countries in the region. And because of historical, ideological, geopolitical, economic, and cultural considerations, reactions from Vietnam have also been much more circumscribed compared to those from the Philippines. Here it is useful to consider some of the key periods in the history of Chinese-Vietnamese relations since the establishment of the Chinese Communist regime in 1949.

The Vietnamese resistance to the French colonial re-conquest of Vietnam after the Second World War had consistently been interpreted by the U.S. State Department as a case of “nationalist groundswell” under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. But after the Communist victory in China, it came to be seen by top U.S. leaders as a Communist threat that had to be destroyed. Secretary of State Dean Acheson commented: “The question of whether Ho is as much a nationalist as a Communist is irrelevant.” Consequently, Acheson argued in 1949 that “no effort should be spared” to assure the success of a pro-French Vietnamese government. On the eve of the Korean War in March 1950, Acheson observed that French military success “depends, in the end, on overcoming [the] opposition of indigenous population” and that the U.S. must help the French protect Indochina from communist encroachment. Thereafter, the United States supplied the French with some 80 percent of the total cost of its colonial re-conquest.

In late 1950, Chinese economic and military aid also began to enter Vietnam. Though much more limited in scope than U.S. support for France, Chinese aid enabled China to increasingly exert influence and dictate demands on the anti-colonial front—the Vietnamese League for Independence, or Viet Minh—and provoke factional disputes among its leadership.

French military setbacks by the Viet Minh, such as the humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, led to the Geneva Conference (held from May 8 to July 21 in that year) to provide France with a face-saving means of disengagement. On her part, France did not want anything more than a graceful exit from Indochina. But, after the United States attempted to sabotage the negotiations and create an opportunity for direct intervention in Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union forced the Hanoi delegation to make repeated and significant compromises so that a peaceful settlement could be concluded quickly. These powers were uneasy over the possibility that the United States might intervene massively, with consequences that would extend beyond Indochina. The Chinese and Russian leaders were also afraid that once the United States intervened, nuclear warfare that had begun in one corner of Asia would not be confined there. China’s leaders also wished to avoid giving the U.S. any pretext for introducing forces on her southern flank, especially after as many as one million Chinese “volunteers” had lost their lives in Korea.

As a result of the significant concessions made by Hanoi, the Geneva agreements on Vietnam were reached on July 20 and 21: the bilateral armistice agreement between France and the Viet Minh was signed on July 20, and the multilateral final declaration was signed by all participants—except the United States—the following day. Secretary of States John Foster Dulles had said however, two days before the signing of the agreement by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and France, that the United States “will not do anything to upset any reasonable accord sought by the French.” This promise was no doubt quite instrumental in encouraging the DRV delegation to make its final concessions in reaching the accords. Both accords spelled out in detail a temporary partition of the country, at the 17th Parallel, into “two military regroupment zones” with military forces of the Viet Minh regrouped to the north of those of the French to the south of the line. National elections under international supervision were to be held in two years to reunify the country.

Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith, head of the American delegation, read an official unilateral declaration from the United States saying that it would not do anything to threaten the stipulations of the agreements and that it specifically endorsed the call for elections to reunify the country. In spite of the public promise, the United States immediately went about violating the agreements and promoted the country’s division into so-called “North Vietnam” and “South Vietnam” until 1975. The Second Indochina War fought over this decision would cost more than two million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives. In a meeting with a group of U.S. scholars in 1971, Premier Zhou Enlai, the head of the Chinese delegation at Geneva, admitted that his “mistake and inexperience” at Geneva had contributed to the Vietnam tragedy.

In the meantime, however, China was able to use the northern half of Vietnam as a buffer zone to protect its territorial integrity from possible U.S. encroachments. Furthermore, in order to secure its “lips-and-teeth” relationship with the Hanoi leadership, China pushed its Maoist model on the northern regime with disastrous consequences for the economic, social, and political structures of the region. As a result, again, many innocent Vietnamese lives were lost.

The most grievous destruction during the mid-1950s was the land reform program carried out simultaneously with the rectification program applied against so-called rightists within the Vietnamese Workers Party and the state bureaucracy. Of course, this was done in the name of building socialism and creating a solid base for resisting imperialist aggression in the south. A report by the politburo to the tenth plenary session of the central committee of the party in October 1956 stated that thousands of lives had been lost as a result of the land reform program, and that “the land reform machine, in fact, became the institution that was placed both above the party and the government.”

The politburo report said that 2,876 village party branches or cells (out of 3,777) were subjected to the rectification program. These branches represented 150,000 out of the total of 178,000 party members. Of the party members who were forced to go through rectification, 84,000 (or 47.1 percent of the total number of party members) were purged. Many village party branches were summarily disbanded, and many good party members were arrested and executed.

The report went on to say that often the best village party branches and the best local cadres were the ones who were most severely punished. Many village party branches that made the biggest contributions during the resistance war against the French were regarded as reactionary and hence their party members and party secretaries were either jailed or killed. One of the aims of the rectification program was to replace party members with those with “property-less peasant background.” As a result, the percentage of members with this background in the village party branches rose to 97 percent.

The rectification program was also applied against sixty-six district party branches and seven provincial branches with similar damaging results. Yet, the land reform and rectification programs enabled China to exert increasing control over the economic, social, and political structures in the northern half of Vietnam. Partly because of their realization of China’s influence over Vietnam and of the China-Soviet split, President Richard M. Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, began to play the “China card” in the early 1970s to get China to apply pressures on Vietnam in favor of American objectives.

Nixon in China

In 1972, President Nixon undertook his historic trip to China, which to the Vietnamese conveyed the implication that the Vietnam question could be settled not via representatives of the Vietnamese people, but between these two great powers. In response to this, Nhan Dan (The People’s Daily), the central organ of the Vietnam Workers’ Party, wrote: “Nixon is heading in the wrong direction. The way out is open, yet he rushes headlong into a blind alley. The time when the great powers could decide the fate of small nations is past and gone.”

Although China was not able to force Vietnam to end the war on Washington’s terms, after the signing of the Paris agreement in late January of 1973 China began cutting all military aid and most economic aid to Hanoi while the United States gave the Saigon regime more than $1 billion a year from 1973 to 1975. After the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the United States immediately imposed the strictest possible trade embargo under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Partly because Hanoi refused to heed China’s advice in sparing Saigon from a military takeover as suggested by France and some other countries, China lost face and decided to cut off all aid to Vietnam. Furthermore, while China began to mass several hundred thousand troops along Vietnam’s northern border, it increased both economic and military aid significantly to the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, which also started to build up its forces along Vietnam’s southern border provinces. According to the scholar Damodar Sardesai, “between 1975 and 1978, China supplied Cambodia with 130-mm mortars, 107-mm bazookas, automatic rifles, transport vehicles, gasoline, and various small weapons, enough to equip thirty to forty regiments totaling about 200,000 troops… An estimated 10,000 Chinese military and technical personnel were sent to Cambodia to improve its military preparedness.” Beginning in January 1977, Khmer Rouge forces attacked civilian settlements in six out of seven of Vietnam’s border provinces. Khmer Rouge troops brutally murdered about 30,000 Vietnamese civilians during attacks in 1977 and 1978, and forced tens of thousands to flee the border provinces. Several hundred thousand Cambodian refugees also fled to Vietnam during those years.

It was during these two years that officials from Vietnam and the United States met to negotiate the normalization of relations between the two countries. In meetings between Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach at the United Nations headquarters in New York in 1978, the two agreed on normalization without any preconditions. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s memoirs, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance sent a report on the details of the agreement to President Jimmy Carter and recommended that normalization should proceed immediately after the Congressional elections in early November. But Brzezinski succeeded in persuading Carter against it.

Fearing that the negative position of the United States would encourage Cambodia and China to stage a pincer attack on Vietnam, in November 1978 Vietnam signed a treaty of friendship and mutual assistance with the Soviet Union. On December 15, the United States announced the normalization of relations with China. On December 25, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in order to preempt a pincer attack, publicly saying, however, that it went into Cambodia to save the Cambodian people from the genocidal Pol Pot regime. In January 1979 China’s top leader, Deng Xiaoping, visiting the United States, announced that China would “teach Vietnam a lesson,” and asked President Carter for “moral support” for the forthcoming Chinese punitive war against Vietnam.

In February 1979, with the blessing of the United States, China launched its invasion of Vietnam, laying waste to six northern provinces and killing an estimated 30,000 Vietnamese (Chinese sources have claimed from 60
70,000 Vietnamese were killed.) Brzezinski called this a “proxy war” against the Soviet Union and was satisfied that it imposed “major costs on [the Vietnamese], produced a great deal of devastation, and above all, showed the limits of their reliance on the Soviets.”

For the next ten years, China and the United States exerted maximum economic and diplomatic pressures on Vietnam. China rejected all proposals by Vietnam Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach for a peaceful settlement to the Cambodian conflict under the auspices of the United Nations. The Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989 and Vietnam’s withdrawal of all its troops from Cambodia by September of the same year should have led to favorable international support for such a settlement.

Then came the collapse of communism in Europe. Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh had gone to East Germany to attend the fortieth anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Germany in early October 1989 just before the Eastern European communist regimes began to collapse one after another. Vietnamese Communist officials rushed to reestablish relations with China at all cost in order to defend socialism under the leadership of China. Linh even went so far as apologizing to Chinese leaders for all the mistakes that Vietnam had made in its the relations with China, while proposing a solution to the Cambodian situation that only involved the remaining communist countries in the region (known as the “Red Solution”).

In 1991, Nguyen Co Thach, the foreign minister who had pushed for a multilateral settlement to the Cambodian conflict, was evicted from the Vietnamese central committee and politburo. Later that year, Vietnam signed the UN-sponsored settlement for Cambodia, which represented the positions of China and the United States. In 1992, China and Vietnam established full diplomatic relations and the policy of cooperating closely with China for ideological reasons and for regime maintenance has been reinforced ever since between top Chinese and Vietnamese leaders.

For example, a joint declaration between Vietnamese General Secretary Nong Duc Manh and Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2008 spelled out the details of “total and effective cooperation” between central committee organizations of the two parties to “promote the mechanisms between the agencies of foreign relations, defense, public security, national security, and to expand practical cooperation in the economic, trade, scientific, technological, cultural, educational and other fields.”

It is difficult to know the real extent of Chinese-Vietnamese cooperation. But even official information publicly given by the two countries has shown that Chinese penetration in many sectors has been quite deep and detrimental to Vietnam’s interests. For example, although bilateral trade between the two countries has increased rapidly since 2000, Vietnam’s trade deficits with China have also accumulated to unprecedented levels. In fact, Vietnam’s trade deficits in the last decade have been principally with China. In 2011, Chinese and Vietnamese governments reported in glowing terms expanding bilateral trade of some $40 billion. This represented a 30 percent increase over the 2010 figure of $27 billion. But Vietnam’s trade deficits with China also grew significantly to over $11 billion in 2009 and $14 billion in 2011. In the first seven months of 2012, Vietnam’s trade deficit with China was over $8 billion. According to both governments, this bilateral trade will increase to $60 billion in 2015 when the ASEAN-China trade agreement goes into effect. This is when Vietnam will have to discard trade barriers over almost all items imported from China.

China’s trade surplus with Vietnam will certainly grow significantly after this date. Already, there are three principal reasons for China’s rapid increase in trade surplus with Vietnam in the last decade: 1) most of Chinese exports to Vietnam are manufactured goods while most of its imports from Vietnam have been agricultural products and raw materials; 2) China subsidizes its producers, manufacturers, and traders at all levels and hence the cost of products exported to Vietnam have been much lower than the production costs of most items produced in Vietnam; 3) Chinese exporters resort to a wide variety of questionable means including outright bribery—which are often reported even in the highly-censored Vietnamese press—to penetrate the Vietnamese market.

Bribery has also enabled Chinese corporations to win most of the bids for significant projects in Vietnam. According to many estimates, more than 50 percent of the total value of the all the contracts during the last ten years have been won by Chinese companies. In particular Chinese companies have won 90 percent of all the contracts in the sectors of electricity, oil and gas, telecommunications, metallurgy, machine tools, and chemicals and 100 percent of all contracts in the mining sector. Many of the contracts are worth several billion dollars each.

Vietnamese press reports have also disclosed that Chinese companies, armed with insider information, often tendered bids lower than those by Vietnam or other foreign countries, in order the win contracts. But after they have won the contracts, the companies jack up prices to levels much higher even than those tendered by Western companies whose technology and equipment are much more modern. The Vietnamese Ministry of Science and Technology disclosed this year that many “turn-key” projects with outdated technology and equipment have been imported from 1,800 dismantled Chinese industrial plants. The ministry added that it has come up with a policy to limit this kind of practice.

It remains to be seen how the ministry will be able to minimize these problems that will certainly grow by leaps and bounds. According to current plans, government outlays for infrastructure alone will be $117 billion by 2025 and many Vietnamese have wondered aloud how much of this money will again end up in Chinese hands. In the meantime, however, implementation of the projects that are already under contract with Chinese companies have been mostly been prolonged because of all kinds of excuses, causing huge cost overruns that the Vietnamese side has had to pay. Completed projects also have to depend on these Chinese contractors for maintenance and spare parts. In addition, tens of thousands of Chinese workers have been brought to projects in Vietnam and have, according to frequent reports in the Vietnamese press, caused many security problems in the surrounding areas.

Partly as a result of the outlays for such projects, the Vietnamese government budget deficit increased 31 percent in 2007, increased 29 percent in 2008, and 46 percent in 2009. Government borrowing from China increased tenfold during those years. In 2009 alone, official borrowing from China was $1.4 billion. Worse, the bad debts to Vietnamese banks from state sectors are threatening a series of bank collapses. According to sources in the financial sector and reports by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Asian Development Bank (ADB), and Vietnamese press, the 2011 figures for the overall debt of the state sector is $52.2 billion, about 43 percent of GDP. The state sector debts to Vietnamese banks run to $24.5 billion, 47 percent of which is considered bad debt.

Both the IMF and the ADB have issued warnings to Vietnam about the danger of the collapse of its banking system. The IMF also stated in September 2012 that it might have to provide bail-out supports for Vietnam. However, Prime Minister Nguyen Tien Dung announced after a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Xi Jinping in September 2012 that “we will not have to resort to help from the IMF.” Sources close to the prime minister have gloated that this was a meeting between bosom friends and that Chinese leaders were prepared to loan the Vietnamese government $10 billion to shore up its banking system should the crisis worsen.

Cleaning up the Neighborhood

Reporting on the meeting between the Chinese vice premier and the Vietnamese prime minister on September 20, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted Xi Jinping as saying that the South China Sea issue will have a negative impact on bilateral relations if not handled properly. The Xinhua report also disclosed that the two sides reaffirmed the agreement reached between President Hu Jintao and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in mid-October of the previous year on “finding solutions to maritime disputes based on negotiations and dialogues.”

The Vietnam News Agency’s report of the same meeting quoted Dung as saying that “the two sides need to properly implement the general understandings of the top leaders of the two countries and seriously abide by the agreements on the fundamental principles directing efforts at solving maritime issues and disputes… through friendly negotiations based on international laws, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, as well as on the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct in order to move forward to an effective Code of Conduct (CoC).”

The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was signed in 2002 by ASEAN countries and China, and committed them to respect freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea in accordance with international laws and UNCLOS, and to resolve their disputes through peaceful means without resorting to the threat or use of force. The parties must also exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability in the region. But the declaration was non-binding, thus enabling activities that have heightened tensions and instability for the entire region. Hence, in 2009 the ASEAN countries decided to come up the idea of the Code of Conduct to create a rules-based framework for managing and regulating the conduct of the parties in the South China Sea. The aim of the CoC is to dampen conflicts and manage disputes, not to solve them. Even so, China has put up obstacles to such an agreement, including providing aid and loans to some ASEAN countries in order to get them to sabotage such an agreement.

A gathering of ASEAN and Chinese officials to discuss the CoC was held in October 2012 in Pattaya, Thailand, to work out the final details of the document so that it could be presented to the ASEAN summit meeting in November for ratification. On October 31, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh stated that ASEAN countries had already reached a consensus of the basic points of a CoC. After the meeting in Pattaya, however, First Deputy Foreign Minister Nopadol Gunavibool of Thailand, the coordinator of meetings between ASEAN and China, said that he did not have much hope for the passage of a CoC at the ASEAN. Then the spokesperson of the Cambodian foreign ministry announced flatly on November 3 that the CoC would not be adopted in 2012.

Recently, China made further moves that alarmed its neighbors. Perhaps the most serious was the announcement in late November by Hainan Province, which administers China’s South China Sea claims, that starting January 1, 2013, Chinese police and coast guard will board ships entering what China considers its territory in the South China Sea. According to a report by Jane Perlez of the New York Times on December 1, the announcement was made by Wu Shicun, the director general of the foreign affairs office of Hainan Province. The article stated: “Mr. Wu said the new regulations applied to all of the hundreds of islands scattered across the sea, and their surrounding waters. That includes islands claimed by several other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines… The Chinese foreign ministry said last week that China was within its rights to allow the coast guard to board vessels in the South China Sea.”

On January 22, Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters that his country had exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of maritime disputes with China and that his government would take the South China Sea issue to an UNCLOS tribunal. That was a direct challenge to China, whose deputy foreign minister, Fu Yuing, had asked del Rosario not to internationalize their dispute by going to the United Nations, raising it with third parties including allies or holding high-profile press conferences.

China has annexed Scarborough Shoal by maintaining a continuous deployment of surveillance ships there. If the Philippines took no action, it would appear to be acquiescing to the enforcement of Chinese jurisdiction by its civilian surveillance ships. The Philippines is trying to get a ruling on international law on specific matters involving maritime jurisdiction under UNCLOS. The Philippines is making four claims: 1) China’s U-shape line is illegal under international law; 2) China has occupied and built structures on submerged banks, reefs and low-tide elevations in the South China Sea and illegally claims that these are Chinese islands under international law: 3) China has illegally interfered with the Philippines’ exercise of sovereign jurisdiction within legal maritime zones; and 4) the Philippines is seeking a judgment in international law on matters that China has not excluded from consideration in its 2006 declaration exempting itself from compulsory arbitration by UNCLOS.

Although the Philippines has chosen to focus on highly specific legal aspects in its case, any favorable ruling would not only undermine China’s U-shape claim but would also represent a breakthrough for a peaceful resolution to the maritime disputes in the region.

China’s stonewalling and resistance with respect to addressing South China Sea issues come from the confidence that in bilateral negotiations with each of the far less powerful ASEAN countries she can impose her will on them. Vietnam is the most vulnerable to China’s pressures in part because Vietnam has the longest coastline in the region and has had the most maritime territories taken over by force by China. Hence compromises by the Vietnamese government in the face of further Chinese assertiveness inside Vietnam’s EEZs and around the areas of disputed islands would certainly invite further pressures from China as well as strong reactions from Vietnamese citizens.

In 2007, protests against China’s arrest and maltreatment of Vietnamese fishermen erupted at the PRC’s embassy and consulates in Vietnam, but were quashed by the Vietnamese government. In 2011, after Chinese Maritime Administration ships cut the sonar cables of Vietnamese oil prospecting boats, protest rallies were staged again, in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City simultaneously, every Sunday for nearly two months. But arrests and violence against the protestors by security forces again put an end to the rallies.

In September, before going to Nanning to meet with Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Dung ordered a crackdown on blogs that have attacked his leadership and opposed China. Subsequently at least five bloggers were put on trial, resulting in jail terms of up to thirteen years. One of the bloggers had composed a song in which he urged the citizens to rise up against invaders and “cowards who sell the country.” On October 14, ten policemen stormed into the dorm room of the female student, Nguyen Phuong Uyen, at the Ho Chi Minh City Food and Technology University and put her in a jail in Long An province. An open letter for her release, signed by her classmates and addressed to President Truong Tan Sang, stated that she had been arrested because she had been suspected of participating in anti-China activities and joining anti-corruption campaigns.

The Vietnamese government’s repressive activities in the face of pressures from China have exacerbated tensions with its own citizens and eroded its legitimacy. Furthermore, these activities might have soiled the Vietnamese government’s image regionally and internationally and hence weakened its effectiveness in dealing with China’s increasing assertive activities in a region through which 60 percent of the entire global sea-borne trade moves each year.

In order to promote peace and stability in the region, all countries that utilize the South China Sea for trade and other reasons should unambiguously support efforts to settle the disputes.

A Proposal

In the interest of regional peace and global development, this writer made the following proposal based on UNCLOS’s definition of three South China Sea areas at an international conference attended by specialists and officials from most Asian countries, the United States, and many European nations. The conference, “The South China Sea: Cooperation for Regional Security and Development,” was held in Ho Chi Minh City in November. The main idea of the proposal is to open up areas for cooperation among all parties involved:

1. Reaffirm the EEZ of each individual country and negotiate all overlapping claims. Form an international consensus on getting China to abandon its U-shape line.

2. Rally international support to bring all disputed claims in the island areas (islands, islets, rocks, and so on) to an international court for judgment if solutions could not be agreed upon by the claimants. In the meantime, occupants of undisputed areas should be willing to declare publicly that no island should have more than twelve nautical miles of territorial waters around it.

3. In the international area beyond the EEZs and the territorial waters of the islands all resources extracted therein (such as oil, gas, seafood) should be divided to each country in the region, after extractive expenses have been deducted, according to a formula to be negotiated.

Ngo Vinh Long is a professor of history at the University of Maine, where he has taught for more than twenty-five years. He is also a research associate at Duy Tan University, Da Nang City, Vietnam. He has contributed to the Journal of Contemporary Asia, American Historical Review, and other publications. He is a frequent commentator on Asian affairs on the Vietnamese-language broadcasts of Radio France Internationale, the BBC, and Radio Free Asia.

 

(Original version is available at The Cairo Review)

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An aerial view of the city of Sansha on an island in the disputed Paracel chain. Photo: AFP

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How a non-existent island became China’s southernmost territory – by Bill Hayton | The South China Morning Post

09 February 2013

Bill Hayton says records show that a translation error some 80 years ago may be to blame.

- by Bill Hayton | The South China Morning Post - Where is the “southernmost point of Chinese territory”? It’s a controversial question and the least controversial answer might be Hainan Island . More controversial options would be the Paracel (Xisha) islands or the Spratlys (Nansha). But officially the southernmost point is even further south – as far south as the James Shoal, about 100 kilometres from the coast of Borneo. What’s more surprising is that this piece of the motherland is actually invisible. There’s nothing there to see, unless you have diving equipment.

An aerial view of the city of Sansha on an island in the disputed Paracel chain. Photo: AFP

An aerial view of the city of Sansha on an island in the disputed Paracel chain. Photo: AFP

The James Shoal lies 22 metres below sea. Yet this inconvenience doesn’t prevent PLA Navy ships visiting the shoal from time to time to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty over it. This ritual involves heaving a large piece of engraved stone over the side of the ship. There is now a small collection of Chinese stelae gathering organic encrustations on the sea floor, more than 1,000 kilometres from Hainan.

How did the Chinese state come to regard this obscure feature, so far from home, as its southernmost point? I’ve been researching the question for some time while writing a book on the South China Sea. The most likely answer seems to be that it was probably the result of a translation error.

In the 1930s, China was engulfed in waves of nationalist anxiety. The predation of the Western powers and imperial Japan, and the inability of the Republic of China to do anything meaningful to stop them, caused anger both in the streets and the corridors of power. In 1933, the republic created the “Inspection Committee for Land and Water Maps” to formally list, describe and map every part of Chinese territory. It was an attempt to assert sovereignty over the republic’s vast territory.

The major problem facing the committee, at least in the South China Sea, was that it had no means of actually surveying any of the features it wanted to claim. Instead, the committee simply copied the existing British charts and changed the names of the islands to make them sound Chinese. We know they did this because the committee’s map included about 20 mistakes that appeared on the British map – features that in later, better surveys were found not to actually exist.

The committee gave some of the Spratly islands Chinese names. North Danger Reef became Beixian (the Chinese translation of “north danger”), Antelope Reef became Lingyang (the Chinese word for antelope). Other names were just transliterated so, for example, Spratly Island became Sipulateli and James Shoal became Zengmu. And this seems to be where the mistakes crept in.

But how to translate “shoal”? It’s a nautical word meaning an area of shallow sea where waves “shoal” up. Sailors would see a strange area of choppy water in the middle of the ocean and know the area was shallow and therefore dangerous. James Shoal is one of many similar features in the Spratlys.

But the committee didn’t seem to understand this obscure English term because they translated “shoal” as “ tan” – the Chinese word for beach or sandbank – a feature which is usually above water. The committee, never having visited the area, seems to have declared James Shoal/Zengmu Tan to be a piece of land and therefore a piece of China.

In 1947, the republic’s cartographers revisited the question of China’s ocean frontier, drawing up what would become known as the “;U-shaped line”. It seems that they looked at the list of Chinese names, assumed that Zengmu Tan was above water and included it within the line. A non-existent island became the country’s southernmost territory.

But in a parallel process around the same time, the republic government gave new names to many of the sea features. Spratly Islands became Nanwei (the noble south), for example, and James Shoal was changed from a sandbank ( tan) into a reef ( ansha). Perhaps, by this time, the authorities had realised their mistake. Nonetheless Zengmu Ansha retained its official southernmost status.

By now, the translation error had become a fact, setting the region on course for conflict 80 years later.

This is more than a piece of historical trivia; James Shoal is a test of whether Beijing really is committed to the rule of international law in the South China Sea. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no state can claim sovereignty over an underwater feature unless it lies within 12 nautical miles of its land. James Shoal is over 1,000 kilometres from undisputed Chinese territory.

Last month, the Philippines government announced it would seek a ruling from an international tribunal about whether China’s claims in the sea were compatible with the UN convention. James Shoal would be a clear example of a claim that is not compatible. Perhaps this might be a good moment for Beijing to review how it came to claim this obscure piece of submarine territory in the first place.

Bill Hayton is writing a book on the South China Sea for publication later this year

(This article was originally published at The South China Morning Post)

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Why Manila is taking China to tribunal

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Why Manila is taking China to tribunal – by Andrew Billo | CNN

28 January 2013

by Andrew Billo | CNN - Last week, the Philippines sought to increase pressure on China over its claims in the South China Sea by filing a legal claim against the country under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas. While unprecedented, the Philippines knows that it cannot afford derailing the economic relationship with its third largest trading partner, China, and a verdict – to be issued several years down the line – will ultimately be unenforceable.

Why Manila is taking China to tribunal

Why, then, would the Philippines take this action now, given the irritation it might cause China, risks to economic relations, and the likely minimal impact it will have on altering China’s behavior?

 

One overarching reason is that in Asia, international relations, at least in the political sphere, are dictated largely by domestic affairs. The legacy of colonialism, and its associated web of international alliances, means that East Asian countries often distrust their neighbors and global powers as well. Distrust has created insular and highly nationalistic policies, a convenient tool for governments wishing to pin domestic governance and economic challenges on the legacy of foreign oppression.

The South China Sea is an ideal distraction from the domestic challenges of Asian countries. The territory is believed to hold significant energy resources, but how much is unknown. At present, countries in the region are sufficiently resourced to maintain their (slowing as they may be) growth trajectories. If domestic energy sources dry up, the challenge of maintaining peace will be even greater.

But the international news media is prematurely hyping the disputes and highlighting the verbal barbs being traded between countries at all levels. It’s true, as The Economist pointed out this past week, that a clash over territory would “imperil the region’s peace and its momentous economic advances.” But this isn’t going to happen, at least not yet.

More from GPS: Why Asia is arguing over its islands

Risking a conflict over the South China Sea area – and the coinciding economic collapse – would pose a greater risk for domestic political leadership, and so naval vessels and troops remain largely stationed at home.

So while a statement released by the Philippines read, “One cannot put a price in the concerted effort of the Filipino people and government in defending our patrimony, territory, national interest and national honor,” the country would be misguided in pursuing anything more than legal action.

In the Philippines, and other countries in the region, the price for maintaining “national honor” with force is prohibitively expensive. Blustering, however, ultimately serves domestic political interests as creating a unified, national stance is quite valuable for political parties wishing to secure their futures in a tenuous political environment.

The South China Sea dispute has long evoked nationalist feelings. In 2007, protests over the South China Sea curiously materialized in Vietnam, and then quickly faded. One Sunday in front of the Chinese Embassy and Consulate in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for example, protestors took to the street, a strange sight in Communist controlled Vietnam, where public protest is typically curtailed.

Police stood by, watching the protestors picket, then, like they had been queued to take action from the top, the police quietly shooed the protestors away. It made for a couple of nice snapshots in local and international papers, but none of the protestors objected to putting their placards away.

A week later, the protests seemed to become more organic in nature, as comments labeling China as the oppressor were bandied about the blogosphere, as well as the streets. China objected, but Vietnam’s “crackdown” on the protests seemed almost to have been staged. The protests were a reminder to the Vietnamese people – most of whom have no direct stake with respect to the dispute – about China as the historic aggressor that the Vietnamese military successfully thwarted in 1979.

Fast-forward again to 2013. In 2007, U.S. interests were squarely in the Middle East and South Asia, centered on Iraq and Afghanistan. Interest in the Asia Pacific was being curtailed. Now, the U.S. government’s return to the region further complicates the South China Sea matter, and vexes regional governments unsure of what lengths the U.S. would take in order to stand up for its regional allies. Is America willing to step up and intervene on any of the bilateral disputes, and will U.S. ships in the region act as a stabilizing force?

But ultimately it is nationalist forces within the most vociferous claimant countries of the Philippines, Vietnam and China that can be blamed most for present tensions for three reasons.

First, by asserting sovereignty – even if illegitimately – over a disputed area, a government is able to project an image of power and influence that reinforces its authority. Second, the contradictory assertions of sovereignty by the various claimants help to create an “enemy” that governments can cast as a scapegoat for certain domestic issues and deflect hostility toward. This also engenders greater appreciation for those in office, as it creates a situation that encourages citizens to rely on their governments for protection. Third, the contentious claims regarding the South China Sea shift focus in the direction of international problems and away from domestic ones.

Despite nationalism’s propensity for polarizing states, entering into sustained military conflict would undermine these governments’ ability to fulfill societal demands for economic growth, institutions, and security as described above. Protracted military conflict is unlikely owing to the financial costs and risks to property and life. For this reason, greater conflict will not emerge in the near-term.

The parties will continue to agree to disagree, but the conflict is  unlikely to escalate much further in the next decade at least.  In the meantime, it is unfortunate that opportunities to cooperate on a range of regional issues will be hampered.

CNN Editor’s note: Andrew Billo is an assistant director with the Asia Society in New York. The views expressed are his own.

(Original version is available at CNN)

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The South China Sea: “Lake Beijing” – by James R. Holmes | The Diplomat

07 January 2013

by James R. Holmes | The Diplomat- What is a “lake” in maritime strategy? Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abepublished an op-ed in Project Syndicate last week maintaining that Chinese power is increasingly transfiguring the South China Sea into “Lake Beijing.” That sounds ominous. To counteract China’s primacy in southern waters, argues Abe, Japan must augment its combat and police capabilities while forging a “diamond” with the United States, Australia, and India to defend the commons in East and South Asia. That sounds like a multinational lake presided over by the region’s leading liberal republics. Presumably the European equivalent would be NATO trusteeship over the Mediterranean Sea.

china's navyThe idea of a lake has a long provenance. Many moons ago, while researching Alfred Thayer Mahan’s influence in Imperial Germany, I stumbled across a 1907 issue of National Geographic that exuded triumphalism. The normally staid magazine ran a map showing American flags scattered all across the Pacific basin, from Hawaii to the Philippine Islands. The flags depicted the islands wrested from Spain in 1898. The caption proudly proclaimed that the Pacific Ocean was—and would remain—“an American Ocean.” And so it was. Writing a century later, pundit Robert Kaplan maintained that the Pacific has been “a veritable American naval lake” since World War II.

By no means is the United States the first seagoing state to declare this or that body of water its own. In the 1950s Indian sea-power proponent K. B. Vaidya declared that the “Indian Ocean must become an Indian Lake” guarded by forward-deployed eastern, southern, and western fleets. A vibrant oceangoing navy would work some alchemy, transforming inward-looking India into the “supreme and undisputed” master of regional waters.

But again, what precisely do sea-power enthusiasts mean when they deem some expanse a lake belonging to some seafaring nation? A lake must have geographic, military, and political components. Geography provides the arena within which nations play out their destinies. Strength, as Clausewitz defines it, is a product of force and resolve.

Let’s break the concept down. First, designating a compact or enclosed sea a national lake is one thing. Declaring de facto supremacy over the world’s largest ocean, as National Geographic did on America’s behalf, borders on hubris. Boundless ambition begets strategic overextension and all of the maladies it entails. That’s what Walter Lippmann meant when he accused interwar American administrations of “monstrous imprudence” for letting Asia-Pacific commitments outstrip naval means.

Second, claiming a lake means commanding the waters within in the Mahanian sense. Mahan famously portrayed maritime command as amassing “overbearing power” to drive enemy fleets from vital waters in wartime. Peacetime command means fielding a force able to overawe and overshadow rival fleets—opening up vistas for deterrence, coercion, and confident naval diplomacy of all varieties. That’s a high standard to meet. And the bigger the lake, the higher the standard.

And third, there’s the question of political resolve or, more accurately, political intentions. For what purpose does a seafaring nation claim a lake for itself? There’s no obvious general rule implicit within the concept. Power is a neutral thing. A nautical suzerain can be benign and self-denying, as I believe the United States has been since 1945 and India will be once it consummates its naval project. Few stay up nights worrying about the U.S. or Indian naval juggernauts’ trampling their interests.

But power can be abused. That seems to be Prime Minister Abe’s message vis-à-vis China. Abe frets that Beijing will misuse its naval might within Lake Beijing, to the detriment of Japan and other seagoing nations. It cannot be trusted to use its power responsibly. Chinese leaders have done little to allay such concerns. Just the opposite.

The concept of a lake isn’t a bad yardstick for measuring Chinese sea power. Is Beijing indeed intent on primacy in the South China Sea and other expanses, to the extent of seeing them as Chinese lakes? Does it possess sufficient naval and military power to make itself the master of the waters within? How large a margin of superiority can the PLA amass in the face of regional competitors? And to what uses would Beijing put its marine primacy once achieved?

Food for thought.

Image credit: Wikicommons

(Original version is available at The Diplomat)

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Trouble outside the Gulf of Tonkin – by Huy Duong and Van Pham | CSIS Blog

14 December 2012

by Huy Duong and Van Pham | CSIS Blog – On November 30, 2012, two Chinese trawlers operating just outside the Gulf of Tonkin ran across the seismic cable being towed by a Vietnamese survey ship and severed it. Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to China’s embassy in Hanoi to protest. In response, China claimed that this concerns an area of overlapping claims and demanded that Vietnam stop unilateral oil and gas activities.

This incident took place at 17º26’N, 108º02’E—roughly 43 nautical miles from Vietnam’s Con Co Island, 54 nautical miles from Vietnam’s mainland coast, and 75 miles from China’s Hainan Island. It was 210 miles from the disputed Paracel Islands, and is therefore unrelated to the dispute over that archipelago.

Although China and Vietnam agreed to a boundary between their waters inside the Gulf of Tonkin in 2000, the two countries are still negotiating a boundary for the area outside its entrance.

If international law or international practice of maritime delimitation is applied, there is little doubt that the negotiated boundary will be at approximately equal distance from China’s Hainan Island and Vietnam’s mainland coast and coastal islands.

If the boundary were drawn in a way that is most favorable to Vietnam (i.e., halfway between Con Co Island and Hainan), then the location of this incident would be 13.5 nautical miles nearer to the Vietnamese mainland coast than this boundary.

Conversely, if the boundary were drawn in a way that is most favorable to China (i.e., halfway between Vietnam’s mainland coast and Hainan, disregarding Vietnam’s Con Co Island), then the location of this incident would still be 10.5 nautical miles nearer to the Vietnamese mainland coast than this boundary.

A reasonable compromise would be for the boundary to lie exactly between the two above-mentioned positions. The location of the cable-cutting incident is 12 nautical miles nearer to Vietnam than this compromise boundary.

In claiming that the cable-cutting incident had taken place in an area of overlapping claims, China is claiming at least 12 nautical miles past the compromise boundary above, and 10.5 nautical miles past even the boundary that is most favorable to itself.

Thus far, China has not indicated the basis for this claim, but it would be difficult to find a legal justification for why a maritime area 75 nautical miles from Hainan and 54 nautical miles from Vietnam’s mainland coast should belong to China. It is apparent that China is seeking to treat an area that it cannot reasonably dispute as a disputed area, and there are three possible explanations for this.

It might be China’s negotiating tactic to claim far beyond all possible equidistance lines, so that when a compromise is reached it will still end up with a part of the area beyond those lines.

The second hypothesis is that China does not accept the use of equidistance lines for drawing the boundary for this area. In pursuing its various claims around the “U-shaped line”, China has been referring to “historic waters” and “historic rights”. It is possible that China wishes to apply these arguments to the demarcation of this area.

The third hypothesis is that China does not want to demarcate this area at all, preferring instead to “set aside the dispute and pursue joint development” even in an area where it does not have a reasonable claim.

Due to the asymmetry of power between the two countries, a negotiated boundary based on the use of equidistance lines, as per legal and international norms for the demarcation of similar areas, will best protect Vietnam’s rights. Joint development might be a temporary solution or might operate in conjunction with this boundary, but cannot be a viable long term substitute for it. Unfortunately, this asymmetry also means that Vietnam’s options might be limited should China choose one or a combination of the three above-mentioned scenarios.

Mr. Huy Duong contributes articles on the South China Sea to several news outlets including the BBC and Vietnam’s online publication VietNamNet. Ms. Van Pham contributes articles on the South China Sea disputes to the BBC.

(Original version is available at CSIS Blog)

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China’s passport move stokes South China Sea dispute | by IISS Editorial Board

12 December 2012

by IISS Editorial Board - A new row over the South China Sea has erupted following Beijing’s issue of biometric passports containing a map showing the so-called ‘nine-dashed line’ that China has used to assert its sovereignty over disputed islands. By printing the passports, and inviting other states to stamp their visas in them, Beijing is attempting to gain recognition for its claims to sovereignty.

© Getty Images

A protest in the Philippines against China’s latest attempt at ‘administrative diplomacy’, 29 November 2012.

States in contention with China over territory have not responded kindly. Vietnam and the Philippines have issued separate visa forms rather than stamping the Chinese passports. Since the map also shows Chinese dominion over territories disputed with India, the Indian government has issued visas to Chinese citizens with its own map of the Sino-Indian border embossed on them. Taiwan has also objected to the new passports, which depict it as part of the People’s Republic and feature images of Taiwanese scenic spots.

The spat has highlighted China’s recent bolstering of its tactic of ‘administrative diplomacy’ in the complex South China Sea disputes, as it seeks to exert de facto sovereignty. However, recent events have also underlined the continued intransigence of all parties to the dispute, even while work is under way to establish a code of conduct intended to bind them to resolve the dispute peacefully.

Long-running arguments
Beijing’s administrative diplomacy is the latest in a series of increasingly bold actions and reactions by claimants over the past four years. The South China Sea dispute has existed for decades, with China and Taiwan having the most expansive claims over the waters. The area included within the nine-dashed line overlaps with exclusive economic zones, islands and territorial waters claimed by five other states: Vietnam, which claims sovereignty over all of the Paracel and Spratly islands; the Philippines, which claims a large area of the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Reef; Malaysia and Brunei, which claim a smaller area of the southern Spratlys; and Indonesia, which claims none of the disputed islands but whose exclusive economic zone overlaps the nine-dashed line.

There were bloody clashes between China and Vietnam in 1974, when China ousted the Vietnamese from half of the Paracel Islands so that it controlled the entire archipelago, and in 1988, when China for the first time established a physical presence in the Spratlys after watching other claimant states do the same. There was a period of relative calm between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, when diplomacy came to the fore and the newly expanded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) managed to draw up a Declaration of Conduct in 2002 to manage tensions. However, since 2008 the disputes have come to be characterised by increasingly hostile rhetoric, maritime paramilitary deployments and perceptions of China’s growing assertiveness.

While Beijing would claim that it was simply reacting to the more aggressive and unilateral hydrocarbon exploration by claimant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, China has undoubtedly become more confident in the power of its own diplomacy and is more willing to use various forms of coercion, whether economic, paramilitary or proxy diplomacy.

Stop and search
The nine-dashed line, which has been used occasionally by China to assert its claims to the South China Sea, was drawn by the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China in 1946 and first published in early 1947. The line then had 11 dashes, but in 1953 China – by then the People’s Republic following the communist takeover– removed two dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin without explanation. Since then, the only use of the nine-dashed line in official communication was in 2009, when the map was submitted as an attachment to aNote Verbale presented to the UN. The note suggested that China had ‘indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and adjacent waters’.

The recent passport issuance, therefore, seems to represent a solidification of China’s nine-dashed line claim. This was done despite the fact that Beijing had agreed in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct to attempt to resolve the disputes in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The nine-dashed line map, which was first published 35 years before the current UNCLOS was finalised, would be unlikely to stand up to scrutiny under international law.

The passports are not the only form of administrative diplomacy that China has undertaken in recent times. In July 2012, Beijing upgraded the county-level status of Sansha, on Hainan Island, to a prefecture-level city, with administrative responsibility for the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands, as well as Scarborough Reef and Macclesfield Bank. While the move was largely symbolic, it allowed the creation of a local government and military garrison. State-run media noted that the city would administer just 13 square kilometres of land but a total of more than two million square kilometres of maritime waters, without clarifying exactly which islands were included.

In a further step, Hainan’s People’s Congress, a provincial-level legislature in the southern island, stated on 29 November that revised regulations would come into effect on 1 January 2013 allowing Hainanese border police to board and search vessels ‘illegally entering’ Chinese territorial waters. Given that the Spratly and Paracel islands are, in China’s view, under the jurisdiction of Hainan (through the Sansha city administration), vessels passing within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands in the sea could be subject to inspections by Hainanese police. The Congress also specifically emphasised that patrols in the water around Sansha City should be strengthened and coordinated with the activities of China’s maritime paramilitaries.

It is unclear whether such constabulary activity will actually be undertaken near the disputed islands, as the seagoing capabilities of the Hainan border police are limited. Moreover, little international shipping passes so close to the shallow and treacherous waters of the Spratly Islands. Nonetheless, any such stop-and-search operation would be a significant escalation in enforcement activities undertaken by China and would increase the possibility of a stand-off or even limited clash between rival paramilitary or military forces.

Attempts by Chinese law-enforcement agencies to harass shipping would inevitably encourage other claimant states to respond by deploying their own constabulary forces, risking a repeat of the impasse over Scarborough Reef in April–May 2012, when a tense stand-off developed between Chinese and Philippine paramilitary vessels. Such incidents are relatively containable as they usually involve unarmed vessels, but aggressive manoeuvres by any of the ships involved, which would augment the probability of injury or death to sailors, might create tensions from which governments would find it hard to retreat without significant loss of face.

Moves to disrupt shipping would greatly concern the United States, which has stated that it has a ‘national interest’ in ensuring freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, and is engaged in a military and diplomatic ‘rebalance’ towards Asia. While Washington has said that it maintains an impartial view of the disputes (even though it is now engaged directly in the modernisation of the Philippine navy through the donation of former coast guard vessels, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed the mutual defence treaty while in Manila in May this year), the principle of freedom of navigation is prized highly in the US.

ASEAN splits
Beijing’s latest attempts to demonstrate de facto sovereignty over the South China Sea are reinforced by regular patrols by China’s maritime paramilitary vessels through the region, as well as the annual and unilateral fishing ban China has enforced since 1999. In addition, Beijing has been attempting to scupper attempts by Southeast Asian countries to forge a unified diplomatic approach to the dispute.

The latest manifestation of this occurred in mid-November at ASEAN’s annual heads of state summit that took place in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. At an ASEAN–Japan meeting, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III directly and vocally contradicted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who claimed there was an ASEAN consensus to retain negotiations over the South China Sea within an ‘ASEAN–China framework’. At the ASEAN–US meeting, Aquino more clearly elucidated Philippine support for US engagement in regional security issues.

The Philippine–Cambodian spat recalled a diplomatic deadlock that had occurred in July at an ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting which, for the first time in the organisation’s 45-year history, ended without a final communiqué being agreed (although frantic Indonesian diplomacy subsequently resulted in an ex post facto statement being drawn up). Cambodia, holding the ASEAN chairmanship for 2012, was adamant that Vietnamese and Philippine desires to have the South China Sea dispute – including the recent Scarborough Reef incident – mentioned in any joint statement could not be fulfilled.

The actions of Cambodia have raised serious concerns among other ASEAN members that Phnom Penh is essentially doing the bidding of its close ally, China, despite the negative consequences for Southeast Asian unity. Beijing is eager to prevent the internationalisation of the South China Sea dispute and prefers to deal with the disagreements on a bilateral rather than multilateral basis. As if to confirm China’s influence over its Southeast Asian ally, Cambodian Secretary of State for Finance Aun Porn Moniroth stated while visiting Beijing in September that: ‘The Chinese government also voiced high appreciation for the part played by Cambodia as the chair of ASEAN to maintain good co-operation between China and ASEAN.’ During that visit, Beijing agreed on soft loans worth $500m and a gift worth $24m for Cambodia.

The splits at the ASEAN summits have highlighted differences of opinion among member states as to how to proceed in negotiations over the South China Sea. Some states, such as Cambodia and Laos, which have a closer relationship with China and no overlapping exclusive economic zone claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, naturally have a different outlook from those littoral states in more direct competition with Beijing over maritime territory, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The facade of unity within ASEAN has, therefore, fractured somewhat, just as some members of the organisation (particularly, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia) are eager to press for a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea to be drawn up between China and ASEAN. (The 2002 Declaration of Conduct is a political rather than a legal instrument.)

Intractable dispute
The situation may change in 2013 as Brunei assumes the ASEAN chair. Although a disputant in the South China Sea and therefore eager to pursue diplomatic solutions, Brunei is less forthright in its claims than the Philippines and Vietnam. (Taiwan is stymied in its vocal claims by international isolation, and Malaysia and China have something of an unwritten understanding not to escalate the issue).

However, recent quarrels have underlined the challenge facing ASEAN not only in producing a united front towards China, but also in agreeing on the terms of a code of conduct even among its own members. The recent attempts by China to enforce its administration on the region are further evidence of the intractability of the dispute.

China is not the only party to pursue such a route: both Vietnam and the Philippines have delegated the administration of the disputed islands to the closest provinces. Vietnam has encouraged tourism to the Spratly Islands, something China is replicating with a leisure cruise to the Paracels that began operating in October. Yet, given China’s resources, its control over the Paracel Islands and the fact that its size means its actions often have greater effects, China’s administrative measures arguably carry greater weight.

Taken together with its posture in the South China Sea, China’s activities in its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands indicate growing confidence in its maritime diplomacy. Since September, when Tokyo nationalised three of the disputed islands by purchasing them from a Japanese civilian, China has maintained near-constant deployments of unarmed maritime paramilitary vessels near the island group. Beijing alsoupdated its baselines – the lines drawn around a coast or island from which territorial or exclusive economic zones are measured – submitted to the UN to include the disputed islands for the first time. Both measures indicate the administrative diplomacy China is using to fulfil its goals in maritime disputes: by deploying regular paramilitary patrols and using legal recourse to reinforce its claim, Beijing is attempting to demonstrate de facto sovereignty over the islands.

This bodes ill for the prospects of resolving the disagreements. During his speech to the Chinese Communist Party National Party Congress in November, out-going President Hu Jintao noted his desire to ‘resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests’. While there is great uncertainty over the likely direction of foreign policy under the fifth generation of leaders set to take power under Xi Jinping, Hu’s language did not suggest much value was placed in the possibility of compromise over maritime disputes.

Discussions between China and ASEAN are likely to continue in 2013, but the result may not be the substantive code of conduct necessary to alleviate concerns over the effects of China’s rise and the possibility of a negotiated solution. The waters in the South China Sea are not likely to be calmed for some time.

 

(Original version is available at IISS Editorial Board)

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