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Home Conferences & Seminars Third International Workshop, November 2011 South China Sea Dispute: Implications of Recent Developments and Prospects for Coming Future, by Tran Truong Thuy

South China Sea Dispute: Implications of Recent Developments and Prospects for Coming Future, by Tran Truong Thuy

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The paper will examine the developments in the South China Sea in recent years, especially the situation in the last 2 years. The first part of the paper will assess the overall policy of claimant states with regard to the South China Sea, especially that of China - the most powerful country that has set the tone of the disputes in the South China Sea and that holds the key for any settlement envisioned. The second part analyzes the developments in the South China Sea in 2011, with special focus on new rounds of tensions seen in the first half of the year and efforts to calm down the situation in recent months. The third session looks at the future of the DOC implementation and prospects for a Code of Conduct to effectively manage the situation.

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China’s South China Sea Policy before and after ARF 17 in Hanoi

As the most powerful country among the claimant states, China has set the tone for the disputes in the South China Sea. The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was reached between China and ASEAN in 2002 as Beijing was adopting an accommodating stance in the South China Sea disputes. Since 2007-2008, however, as Beijing began to take on a more assertive approach, the situation has been tense again.

China’s comprehensive policy in the South China Sea

To achieve de-factor control of the South China Sea set by the U-shaped claim,  China has significantly increased its presence within the line with a comprehensive approach, expanding not only military but also paramilitary and civilian activities in the area.

Militarily, China is accelerating military build-up, especially naval modernization with the construction of a naval base in Sanya that serves as a gateway to the South China Sea. To send messages of deterrence to other claimants in the South China Sea, the Chinese navy has also increased the frequency and level of coordination in conducting naval exercises in the South China Sea. The most significant event happened in July 2010 when the PLA navy for the first time mobilized at least a dozen modern warships from three fleets (the North Fleet, the East Fleet, and the South Fleet) to conduct a large-scale joint naval exercise in the South China Sea.[1]

Paramilitarily, China has deployed patrol vessels and boats from various Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies to the South China Sea.[2] During the period of its unilaterally declared fishing ban between May and August (imposed annually since 1999), Chinese maritime security forces have repeatedly detained Vietnamese fishermen, confiscated fishing boats and demanded several fines of US $8,000 to $10,000 for the release of the fishermen. In early April 2010, Beijing even announced the dispatch of two large fishery patrol vessels to the Spratly Islands to protect Chinese fishing vessels, which were increasing in number and going further to the south.  It was the first time China had done so outside the period of its unilateral fishing ban.[3] On June 23, 2010, the Chinese fishery administration vessel Yuzheng 311 pointed alarge-caliber machine gun to an Indonesian ship and threatened to attack the ship when a Chinese fishing boat was seized by Indonesian forces in the area within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zones in the Natuna Islands.[4]

On the diplomatic front, China’s strategy with regard to the South China Sea issues has centered on the insistence on bilateral negotiations with smaller claimant states and the prevention of any efforts to multilateralize and internationalize the issues and especially any US involvement attempts. Chinese Foreign Minister once warned that turning the South China Sea issues into international or multilateral ones will “only ma[d]e matters worse and the resolution more difficult”.[5]

With regard to the issue of energy development in the South China Sea, beginning in the summer of 2007, China has threatened a number of foreign oil and gas companies to stop joint exploration operations in the sea with their Vietnamese partners or face unestimated consequences in their business dealings with China.[6]

While protesting against energy development activities undertaken by other countries in the area within the U-shaped claim, China has on the other hand advocated the idea of joint energy resources development within that claim in the South China Sea. In principle, other claimants do not oppose concept of joint development; however, the question of how to define an acceptable area in the disputed waters in the South China Sea to launch joint development projects remains one of the most intractable issues in putting the idea into practice. ASEAN claimant states would certainly not accept any Chinese proposals for joint development arrangements in the areas within their claimed EEZ and continental shelves, which sometimes are five to seven hundreds  nautical miles far from Hainan Island. ASEAN claimants are ready to work with foreign—including Chinese—partners only on the condition that their sovereign rights are fully respected.[7] As has been demonstrated in the case of the Agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking in the South China Sea in 2005 between national petroleum corporations of China, the Philippines and Vietnam, the Philippines had to postpone the renewal of the agreement due to mounting domestic opposition, which condemned the government of compromising Philippine sovereignty by allowing the area of the joint development project to overlap with the country’s exclusive economic zone.       

Several factors contribute to explain why China has returned to an assertive approach in the South China Sea in recent years. First, China for decades of continuous remarkable economic growth has accumulated its economic and military power to a level that allows it to become increasingly assertive in conducting external behaviors, especially during and after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Second, relative stability in China-Taiwan relations in recent years has enabled China to shift its priorities, capability and resources to other external issues, most notably to the South China Sea. Third, rising nationalism and increasing role and activities of the PLA as well as growing competition between various interest groups within Chinese domestic politics (law enforcements agencies, energy corporations, coastal provinces,…) have served to complicate the process of policy formulation and implementation with regard to the South China Sea issues in China. Fourth, other claimants’ actions in the South China Sea has also forced China to react and Beijing has overly reacted. Fifth, the lack of an effective mechanism for managing the disputes in the South China Sea, especially for regulating the conduct of the parties including China has given China much leeway to pursue its bold stance.

(continuing)

 

Read full text of this paper here

[1] “China's three-point naval strategy”, Strategic Comment, Volume 16, Comment 37 – October 2010, The International Institute For Strategic Studies (IISS), http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-comments/past-issues/volume-16-2010/october/chinas-three-point-naval-strategy/

[2] For maritime law enforcement, China has at least five agencies: The China Coast Guard is the maritime branch of the Public Security Border Troops, a paramilitary police force under the leadership of the Ministry of Public Security; The China Maritime Safety Administration, part of the Ministry of Transport, is for coordinating maritime search and rescue;  The China Marine Surveillance (CMS), a paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency under the auspices of the State Oceanic Administration; The China Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) (an organ of the Fisheries Management Bureau under the Ministry of Agriculture) is responsible for the enforcement of laws concerning fishing and maritime resources; and the General Administration of Customs operates a maritime anti-smuggling force.Every agency has their own patrol vessels and operates independently and uncoordinatedly with each others. For a comprehensive analysis, see: Lyle J. Goldstein, Five Dragons Stirring Up the Sea: Challenge and Opportunity in China’s Improving Maritime Enforcement Capabilities, U.S. Naval War College, China Maritime Study 5, April 2010. http://www.usnwc.edu/Research---Gaming/China-Maritime-Studies-Institute/Publications/documents/CMSI_No5_web1.pdf

[3] Ian Storey, China’s “Charm Offensive” Loses Momentum in Southeast Asia, China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 9, April 29, 2010. http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=36324&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=897d20a7fa

[4] “China flexes muscles in South China Sea”, Mainichi Shimbun, 27 July 2010

[5] Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi Refutes Fallacies On the South China Sea Issue,

http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx/t719460.htm

[6] Scot Marciel, “Maritime Issues and Sovereignty Disputes in East Asia” Testimony before the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, July 15, 2009. http://foreign.senate.gov/hearings/hearing/20090715_2/

For Summary of leaked US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks on China's protests against international oil firms signing exploration deals with Vietnam in the South China Sea, see Greg Torode, “Beijing pressure intense in South China Sea row”, South China Morning Post, Sep 23, 2011. http://topics.scmp.com/news/china-news-watch/article/Beijing-pressure-intense-in-South-China-Sea-row

[7] “Vietnam Signals It Wants ExxonMobil Deal Despite China Warning,” Agence France-Presse, July 24, 2008,  http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5heDDtUDkdvnfpdxGI91DdmaxA7aw. 


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