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Growing conflicts over South China sea

By Professor  

In the month of May 2017, China invited heads of the Governments, high-level bureaucrats, trade representatives and even academics to outline the objectives of the One Belt One Road or Belt and Road Initiative (OBOR/B&R) and also highlighted its intention to build trade and infrastructure networks for the benefit of developing economies. However, with regard to South China Sea and East China Sea, China’s assertiveness manifested through military means has hogged media attention. In the context of South China Sea, it was felt that a cooperative attitude and compliance of China towards international obligations would help in bringing some stability and peace in the turbulent waters. The unilateral declaration of fishing ban and the increasing encroachment by Chinese fishermen boat militia has been reflected in many newspapers across Asia.

Lately, there has been hope, as reflected in a section of media that the logjam that was there between the China and other claimant countries namely Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Philippines is easing and the parties in dispute have come to a binding code of conduct. However, given the fact that the declaration of the Code of Conduct (CoC) on South China Sea, which was agreed to by the claimant countries was voluntary.

There is  hope that CoC would ease the tension between China and Vietnam, the two most profound claimants of the South China Sea islands. While China has completely ignored Vietnam’s claims to the Paracel, there is a need to review the case also. The maritime territory needs to be evaluated and balanced dialogue among the claimant states need to be taken into account. Given the spate of incidents in the last three years, the speculation is rife that even CoC would not provide a lasting and feasible solution. The three core areas which are of concern and need to be addressed under the CoC are with regard to the demilitarisation of the islands, dispute settlement mechanism and the need for monitoring compliance to CoC.

The South China Sea dispute gained international attention and also triggered speculation, when, on July 12, 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) adjudicated that the reclamation of islands and unilateral declaration of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are illegal and have no legal sanctity under international law. It was victory for Philippines but China took a rather confrontationist attitude and declared that it did not abide by the PCA verdict. The lackluster support by the US and cautious attitude by the Philippines was cleverly cultivated by China. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte incrementally changed sides as he was not very sure about the US support to the country’s territorial claims. Further, other claimant states with the exception of Vietnam, have adopted conciliatory attitude towards China. Indonesia which was not the primary claimant became embroiled because of Chinese encroachment into its EEZ (near Natuna islands) and this led to sinking of few Chinese boats by the Indonesian navy.  Sensing tension closer to the coast, Philippines undertook conciliatory approach and reached out to China through diplomatic and political means. The China-Philippines bonhomie foxed the US which was apprehensive about the moves made by President Duterte. The US defence and strategic calculations were sabotaged by its human rights and democracy fundamentals which President Duterte was wary of. Duterte has undertaken harsh measures against drug traffickers and contraband couriers, and United State’s overzealous non-governmental organisations and related agencies were not happy.

What was gained through years of understanding was lost in the translation of democratic and human rights fundamentals. Philippines undertook diplomatic as well as unofficial meetings to diffuse the crisis and opt for a bilateral solution clearing leaving the  Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) multilateral high table for its sovereign interests. The US, on the other hand, tried hard to reinforce its role as the sole guarantor of peace and security for the region. Japan started viewing the conflagration of the dispute and the increasing militarisation of the islands having a direct impact on the Diaoyu/ Senkaku issue. 

In order to address the crisis emerging out of the PCA ruling, the subsequent Asean Foreign Ministers meeting was carefully managed by China. Speculations were rife that Asean centrality was under stress given the history of the organisation dealing contentious issues related to regional security with a velvet hands. Asean did get charmed by the dialogue partner — China’s preferences. However, it would not be wrong to say that Asean did not reflect what the four Asean claimant states were espousing for, especially Philippines and Vietnam. It was these two countries and their differences with China which restrained the issue of Asean communiqué during the Phnom Penh Summit in 2011.

Asean, again, this year lost it to China when it did not refer strongly to South China Sea issue in its April declaration. The ambivalent attitude of the US, the Philippines’ compromise with China gave that extra elbow room for Chinese military to reinforce structures and place heavy equipment on those islands which were under its occupation. The comprehensive damage to peace was already done.

The question is: If China retains its assertive and dogmatic approach what are the possibilities for the Asean nations and countries such as India. India in its third maritime strategy document (2016) has claimed South China Sea as its secondary area of interest. However, in comparison to its previous version which was released in 2009 publicly, the wordings of the latest Maritime Strategy Document clearly outline the India’s priorities in the Indo-Pacific region.

In Southeast Asia, and particularly South China Sea, the competing narratives primarily from academics and strategic thinkers have dominated the discourse. The adhoc mechanisms and the reference to South China Sea dispute in communiques have compromised regional security. The resilience of the Asean was challenged and debated, but the Asean centrality was strongly supported by India, Japan and Australia. The institutionalisation of Asean Defence Ministers meeting plus (ADMM) and Asean Maritime Forum which includes Asean dialogue partners also have anchored multilateralism into defence and maritime domain, leading to power struggle within the Southeast Asian region. The Asean communiqué, since 2011 have also found increasing reference about South China Sea but in a very nuanced way — leading to discomfort to China as one of the claimant countries apart from five other claimants.

There have been incidents of cooperative process which have taken roots in the past between China, Vietnam and Philippines. Way back in late 1990s, China, Vietnam and the Philippines have discussed possibility of trilateral cooperation in the region both with regard to disasters and joint exploration of the oil and gas in the South China Sea. In the current context, there are five possibilities which need to be undertaken by Asean. First, CoC with articles on penalising the infringing state. The Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) need to be laid out. The enforcement of the CoC would be an important aspect, and in this regard the other dialogue partners, except China, should work as moderators and enforcers of the CoC. The penalty and the other legal aspects should be clearly laid out. 

(The writer is an Assistant Professor, JSIA, Jindal Global University)