Growing tension in South China Sea – Causes and Cures, by S. D. Pradhan

Monday, 26 December 2011 07:05 quanghung299
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The recent escalation in tension in South China Sea has indicated the need for objectively looking at the causes of dispute and the recent developments both negative and positive with a view to suggest measures todiffuse the situation, which according to some security experts has the potentials to escalate into an armed conflict and to help the involved nations to find a permanent solution.

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The dispute stems from the fact that there are overlapping claims of sovereignty by several nations over islands in the South China Sea. The regional energy security and national concerns make the situation more complex. While China claims the entire area, other nations like Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the area. While Indonesia is not a party to the dispute in the Spratly Islands, China’s U-shaped line cuts through Indonesian claimed waters to the north of Natuna and the line of demarcation between Vietnam and Indonesia has yet to be finalized.

The South China Sea is strategically important. It is one of the world’s most important trade routes. The littoral states provide good markets for the products of developed nations. Therefore the nations, which are outside the region, desire freedom of navigation for carrying out trading operations.In addition, it has significant oil and gas reserves.US Geological Survey projects that this region could contain nearly twice of China’s known reserves of oil and plenty of gas. Therefore, the littoral states desire to have their share of the area.Notwithstanding the involved nations have in the past made efforts to resolve the issue peacefully and agreed to adhere to the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea, 2002(DOC) based on the norms of International Law as well as attempts to advance to the Code of Conduct on the East Sea (COC), the tension has significantly grown recently.

The following incidents, which have contributed to the rising tension, deserve attention-

·        In February 2011, a confrontation between two Chinese vessels and a Philippines oil exploratory ship owned by Forum Energy occurred. Democrat Senator and Head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Sub-committee for East Asia, Jim Webb stated that the Chinese vessels tried to smash the Philippines ship, which China denied.

·        In May 2011, Chinese planes were reported over islets, atolls and reefs, which are claimed by Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei besides China. This was seen by the involved parties as an attempt by China to assert its claim resulting in raising the level of tension.

·        On 26th May and again on 9th June, 2011 Chinese patrol boats cut the cables on Vietnamese exploration ships, which were conducting seismic research about 120 nautical miles off Vietnam’s central coast. These actions were clearly in violation of the 2002 Declaration of the Conduct of Parties between China and ASEAN.

·        In the third week of July, 2011 an Indian ship INS Airavat, which was on a friendly visit to Vietnamese port of NhaTrang was asked by a Chinese ship to move out of “the Chinese Waters” when the Indian Ship was moving up-coast to Haiphong. This was seen as the Chinese attempt to assert its sovereignty in the Vietnamese area.

·        In September, 2011 China objected oil and gas exploration in two Vietnamese blocks by India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL). China in a demarche to India stated that unless its permission was taken for exploration in Blocks 127 and 128, OVL’s activities would be illegal. While India replied that the Chinese objections had no legal basis as these blocks belong to Vietnam, this incident was seen as yet another attempt by China to challenge Vietnam’s sovereignty in the area and sending a signal to all other countries that China would not allow them to take any decision without its approval for the exploration in these areas.  

In the above context, the deeper causes of the growing tension between the Chinese and its neighbours need to be analysed. For this reason it is necessary to look at two other areas which involve China and its other neighbours. One of the other areas is East China Sea which is witnessing tension between China and Japan. The other area is Sino-Indian border, which is witnessingincreasing tension. The incidents causing tension recently in these areas are described in the subsequent paragraphs.

The dispute in East China Sea stems from the conflicting claims over Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and natural gas field called Okinawa/Yihu, which is said to have 17.5trillion cubic feet gas as well as substantial amount of oil. The conflict on location of median between the two countries has made the issue more complex. While Japan holds the view that the median between the two countries should mark the boundary of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), China insists that boundary should be defined by Chinese continental-shelf extending its EEZ beyond the median line. In addition, the Chinese drilling in Chunxio field- an undisputed area, is also causing tension as Japan feels that it could drain gas on Japan’s side through honey comb of sea-bed rocks. The following incidents have raised the tension in the East China Sea-

·        In 2008, two Chinese Maritime Surveillance boats entered and stayed in Japan’s territorial waters for more than nine hours.

·        On the 7th September,2010 two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats collided with a Chinese fishing boat while carrying out the law enforcement activities in the Senkaku islands.

·        On 24th August,2011 about one month after ARF Conference, two patrol boats of the Chinese Fishery Administration entered into Japan’s territorial waters. This was the first incident after 2008, when Chinese government vessels entered into Japan’s area.

In recent years several incidents occurred at the Sino-Indian border rising tension between the two countriesdespiteIndia having several agreements with China to settle boundary as well as other issues peacefully. These include Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control of 1993, Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in Military Field of 1996, and Declaration on Principles for Relations of People’s Republic of China and Republic of India in 2003.Despite the above agreements, the following incidents took placegenerating tension-

·        In 2009, China objected to the visits of Indian President and Indian P M to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

·        In 2010, China opposed the Asian Development Bank Project in India’s Arunachal Pradesh stating that China considers it as a “disputed” area.

·         In 2010 China began to issue stapled visas to Indians belonging to J&K State.

·        In August 2010, China denied visa to Lt. Gen. B.SJaswal, Commander, Northern Command, on the ground that he was based in J&K. The lack of diplomatic sensitivity was stark since the Lt. Gen Jaswal was invited by the PLA.

·        In August 2011, the Chinese troops were reported to have entered into Indian Territory and dismantled17 old army bunkers in Chumar division of Nyoma sector about 300kilometres from Leh.

·        In the summer of 2011 the Chinese soldiers came into the Indian Territory in the Northern Sikkim in the Finger Area at least a couple of times.

·        Chinese troops numbering between 3000-4000 are stationed in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

An analysis of the developments in the three areas allows us to see the problem in the wider perspective. The common factor in all the three regions is that the disputes involve China and its neighbours. The basic cause of rising tensions in recent times is seen as China’s increasing aggressive posture by its neighbours. The security experts in China’s neighbouring countries point out that China’s assertiveness has now become aggressive. They perceive that China is redefining its land and maritime borders to project its growing power. They also see thatChina’s has adopted aggressiveposture towards its neighbours to establish its hegemony over them. They also point out thatChina does not take seriously the agreements signed with its neighbours for resolving the issues through negotiations. They see that theChineseattempts to project its growing power as China’s peaceful rise that is not aimed against any country asaploy to obfuscate its ulterior motive of strengthening itself without arousing the suspicions of its neighbours.The recent White Paper of China has again emphasised the peaceful rise of China but neighbours are in no mood to accept it. Other countries assess that the Chinese military capabilities are not merely aimed at developing defensive capabilities but in fact have enabled China to have ‘threat capabilities’.

(continuing)

 

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