Storm Over Sea Claims

Territorial disputes over the vast South China Sea are expected to dominate a key ASEAN forum.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
China's territorial claim to the South China Sea includes two disputed island chains.

China abhors any multilateral discussions on the South China Sea, fully claiming the vast waters. So, when the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) debates the hotly contested Sea on Saturday, Chinese tolerance and patience will be stretched thin.

The raging disputes between China and other nations over ownership of atolls and islands in the oil and gas-rich waters and Beijing's muscle-flexing in the area are expected to dominate the 27-nation forum's annual talks in Indonesia's Bali resort, officials say.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is expected to get an earful as his ARF counterparts, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, debate the dispute in the South China Sea, which straddles global trade routes and has triggered concerns over regional security and freedom of navigation.

China says it is willing to negotiate only bilaterally with states having overlapping claims to islands in the Sea, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, all member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Multilateral talks, Beijing says, are a "no-no," even though ASEAN wants to deal with China as a group.

China has also rejected calls by ASEAN states for arbitration by the U.N.'s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, an independent judicial body set up by the Convention of the Law of the Sea, the global legislation covering all maritime territorial disputes.

With the Philippines and Vietnam protesting what they call increasingly aggressive actions by China in the disputed area in recent weeks, the ASEAN group is concerned that any conflicts will pose a threat to security and damage trade and investment in the region.

The two ASEAN states have been looking to the U.S. to support their case, but Washington has said that it will not take sides in the dispute and has urged nations to resolve the issue peacefully, emphasizing freedom of navigation in the area.

Clinton’s remarks at the weekend ARF meeting and how Yang responds will be closely assessed, analysts said.

"Her statement on the disputes—and whether it is perceived as more or less assertive than her remarks last year—will be thoroughly analyzed," said former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino.

There will also be great interest in how China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, responds.

"China is expected to insist that the conflicting claims to all or part of the South China Sea are a bilateral matter between the claimants," said Severino, now head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

In earlier ARF ministerial meetings, he said, China has demanded that the South China Sea be kept out of formal forum discussions.

'National interest'

Clinton angered China last year when she told the ARF that the United States had a “national interest” in the South China Sea and could facilitate talks. Beijing saw it as a signal that Washington would interfere in the territorial dispute.

The top U.S. diplomat has also urged the creation of a binding code of conduct for China and the other claimant states as well as an institutional process for resolving those claims.

Upping the ante this week, two influential U.S. senators echoed Clinton's remarks on protecting American interests in the region, in a letter to Dai Bingguo, China’s top foreign policy official.

John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, cited China's recent clashes with Vietnam and the Philippines.

“If appropriate steps are not taken to calm the situation, future incidents could escalate, jeopardizing the vital national interests of the United States,” they said.

Their letter, a copy of which was made available Tuesday, also questioned China's long-stated objective of a "peaceful rise."

In recent weeks, Chinese forces allegedly opened fire on Filipino fishermen, shadowed an oil exploration vessel employed by a Philippine firm, and put up structures in areas claimed by Manila.

Twice since May, Vietnam says, Chinese vessels cut the exploration cables of a Vietnamese survey ship.

This, the two senators said, "seem at odds with China's clearly expressed preference for a peaceful, negotiated resolution of South China Sea disputes."

Live-fire drills

U.S. forces, who have patrolled the South China Sea virtually uncontested for decades, recently carried out live-fire drills with the Philippines and Vietnam near the disputed waters, much to the chagrin of China.

"Not surprisingly, ASEAN welcomes the involvement of the U.S. and other maritime powers that have interests in the Sea," said Carlyle Thayer, an expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia who studies the South China Sea disputes.

"But ASEAN is wary of ganging up on and isolating China," he said.

There are fears within ASEAN too that Beijing may suspect that the 10-member grouping is getting even closer to the U.S., especially as the Obama administration moves to hold more summits with regional leaders.

"ASEAN as a group must think not about only balancing power with power, even as they reach out to the U.S.,"  cautioned Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, a think tank.

While the U.S. military presence has been a factor for stability, "the urgent need is to develop norms and habits for peaceful cooperation," he said.

China has underlined its "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea, saying its claims stretch back at least to the 1930s, when official maps from Beijing contained the whole sea as Chinese territory.

It also unveiled a map showing a U-shaped dotted line extending from China and enclosing virtually the entire South China Sea while hugging the coastline of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

Code of conduct


ARF meeting host Indonesia is pushing for some progress in the long regional quest for guidelines to implement a code of conduct for all parties in the waterway.

It hopes these can be finalized by November, when the East Asia summit is held in Bali with participation from the U.S. for the first time.

ASEAN and China took 10 years to agree in 2002 on a declaration for such a code, and they have been discussing the guidelines to implement it for the last nine years without agreement. 

"Things do not necessarily have to be this slow," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono remarked this week, adding "some progress" was long-overdue.

He said ASEAN needs to strongly signal to the world that the situation in the sea, a strategical shipping lane, is "predictable" and "manageable."

There may be some reason for optimism.

Senior officials preparing for an ASEAN ministerial meeting this week said Wednesday that the grouping and China had agreed on a set of preliminary guidelines to govern behavior in the South China Sea.

While the guidelines were hailed publicly as a "significant step" in resolving territorial disputes, diplomats conceded that they have been watered down and contain more generalities than specifics, Agence France-Presse reported.

Moreover, differences remained on which areas of the South China Sea are being disputed.

The implementation of the code of conduct has been delayed by China's opposition to a paragraph that allows the four ASEAN claimants to hold informal consultations among themselves prior to an ASEAN-China meeting, officials said.

Experts do not see any immediate breakthrough to the dispute even as trade and investment between ASEAN and China have been bustling under a free trade agreement, with annual total trade set to go beyond U.S$300 billion.

"No final settlement on territorial disputes can be reached until China revises its claims to the South China Sea to conform to international law, including the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea," Thayer said.

Until then, China may have to contend with multilateral talks on the territorial dispute. 

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