from Asia Unbound

ASEAN Kicks the South China Sea Dispute down the Road

August 02, 2011

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China

Regional Organizations

Territorial Disputes

Anti-China protesters hold a Vietnamese flag (top) and a Chinese flag with an image of the pirate skull and crossbones (bottom) during a demonstration around Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi July 24, 2011.
Anti-China protesters hold a Vietnamese flag (top) and a Chinese flag with an image of the pirate skull and crossbones (bottom) during a demonstration around Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi July 24, 2011. (Peter Ng/Courtesy Reuters)

In the wake of the recent ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, both Southeast Asian nations and China celebrated the drafting of an agreement between Southeast Asian states and China to resolve South China Sea disputes peacefully. As Voice of America reported, American officials also hailed the deal:

"U.S. officials are expressing relief over the accord, which they say should ease tensions between China and several ASEAN member states including U.S. defense treaty ally, the Philippines."

Of course, any dampening of tensions in the South China Sea, where there has been one incident after the next in recent months, is welcome. The Philippines, Vietnam, and China had been ratcheting up tensions, and some Chinese analysts even began talking of a “limited war” with Vietnam to teach the country a lesson about claims in the Sea.

But they should not be celebrating this supposed deal so quickly. The new “deal” is really just a commitment and guidelines for all the countries attempt to work out rival claims, and it hardly guarantees that any of the nations are going to give up their demands over part of the Sea. The “deal” is vaguely worded, and mostly avoids overlapping territorial claims to focus instead on other issues like environmental protection. It contains no clauses on how the countries should deal with potential clashes on the waters between their navies, or even how their navies should communicate.

Certainly China, which has become increasingly aggressive in its demands over most of the Sea, appears unlikely, in the long run, to give up its territorial claims.  After all, China and the ASEAN member states signed a previous code of conduct on the Sea nearly a decade ago, and that hardly prevented Beijing from demanding almost the entire body of water.

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