from Asia Unbound

The South China Sea Steams Up

June 27, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Protesters march with banners and placards during an anti-China demonstration on a street in Hanoi on June 19, 2011. Several dozen Vietnamese protested in front of the Chinese embassy and marched through Hanoi for the third Sunday running after Beijing sent one of its biggest maritime patrol ships into the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Protesters march with banners and placards during an anti-China demonstration on a street in Hanoi June 19, 2011. Several dozen Vietnamese protested in front of the Chinese embassy and marched through Hanoi for the third Sunday running after Beijing sent one of its biggest maritime patrol ships into the disputed waters of the South China Sea. (John Ruwitch/Courtesy Reuters)

It is summertime, and everyone is out sailing on the South China Sea. Unfortunately, the waters have gotten a bit choppy.  The Philippines and Vietnam, in particular, are riled up over China’s most recent demonstrations of assertiveness: Chinese vessels have reportedly been busy intruding into Philippine waters and cutting the cables of two boats under the flag of PetroVietnam. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have called for assistance from the international community to help rein China in.

At stake, of course, are the potentially vast oil and natural gas resources that many believe the South China Sea possesses. For decades, six claimants—Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, and Brunei—have bickered and skirmished over who is entitled to what. Ancient claims of sovereignty run up against the Law of the Sea and Exclusive Economic Zones. Rhetorical and actual skirmishes have become a way of life. Indeed the situation has been far more dangerous in the past with live fire exchanged and fishermen or sailors killed.

What’s different now, however, is the context in which these conflicts are playing out. And this matters – a lot. As its naval capacity has increased, China has made clear its intent to expand its range of activity throughout the region. Having formally shifted policy from a “near seas” to a” far coastal” defense, China has in effect declared itself a regional and emerging global naval power.  In mid-June, it sent a 3,000 ton Haixun-31 ship through the South China Sea to “monitor shipping, carry out surveying, inspect oil wells and protect maritime security.” In response to China’s increasing activism, regional nations have invited the United States to enter directly into the fray.  The U.S. is formally obligated to defend or provide for the defense of the Philippines and Taiwan; and military relations with Vietnam have been expanding rapidly. The Chinese have been quick to denounce any interference by the United States; however, the United States shows little inclination to listen, consulting with the parties, and clearly asserting U.S. national interest in freedom of navigation and respect for international law.  Even the U.S. Congress has gotten in to the game, recently pushing a resolution that registers Congressional disapproval for China’s actions in the South China Sea.

So what is the answer?  Ideally, of course, all the claimants sit down and honor the 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” accord. This would mean moving forward with discussions and negotiations on how to work together to develop the resources of the South China Sea. (Of course, this was supposed to happen with China and Japan in the East China Sea, as well.) Less ideally, the United States becomes a more permanent player in the ongoing fracas—as it has in the Mekong River dispute—acting as a counterweight to China in support of the smaller Southeast Asian countries’ interests. The U.S. could also use the ASEAN Regional Forum, its bilateral relations with the other claimants, and perhaps even its new seat at the East Asian Summit to bring pressure to bear on China to sit down with everyone else and discuss the challenge at hand. At this point, however, only one thing seems certain, anyone out there sailing on the South China Sea should get ready for a rough ride.

More on:

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