TROUBLE ON THE HIGH SEAS:
WHO OWNS THE
SOUTH CHINA SEA?
Since the 1990s China and Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have disputed territorial rights in the heavily traveled and resource-rich South China Sea. The issue has flared up again with everything on hold until the East Asian Summit in November and probably beyond.
The South China Sea, covering some 3.5 million square kilometers, is one of the world’s busiest routes of commerce as it carries manufactured goods from China, Taiwan and Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) countries to the West and oil from the Mideast to fuel the economic rise of the region.
Since the 1990s, there has been an ongoing dispute between China and the five other countries over territorial rights in the waterway. China, in its mad dash for energy
The controversy has been inflamed by the alleged presence of oil and gas beneath the sea. China estimates there could be as many as 213 billion barrels of oil reserves, which would place it second in the world behind only Saudi Arabia. American scientists estimate it is closer to 28 billion barrels. The sea also is thought to possess large natural gas reserves.
Some also say that the unilateral use of the sea would accommodate China’s plans to develop its naval forces, especially a nuclear submarine fleet. In August, China launched its first aircraft carrier for sea trials.
Another player is the United States. As part of its renewed interest in Asean, the United States has also stated its views on the dispute, much to China’s dismay, as the US assumes a counter role to China’s growing power and influence in the region. The US is also a defense treaty partner of the Philippines.
The ultimate objective is for China and the Asean countries to agree on a legally binding Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea but diplomats say that this remains an elusive goal.
Military exercises in the South China Sea between the US Navy and Asean members started in the 1990s. Since 1995, Cooperation Afloat Readiness And Training (CARAT) naval exercises have been conducted annually between the US and six of the 10 Asean member states: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. This year, Cambodia became the first new CARAT participant in 16 years.
In 1995, after China built structures on the Spratly Islands, the Philippines persuaded Asean to issue a statement denouncing China’s action.
In the late 1990s, after continuing disputes between China and the Philippines over the Spratlys, China and Asean negotiated a code of conduct to reduce conflict over territory and rights in the South China Sea.
China objected to a legally binding “code,” however, preferring to negotiate one-on-one with the relatively weak states. China also objected to any notion that territorial disputes were anything but bilateral.
The result was the 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.” Asean lost the establishment of a “code,” with its ambition preserved only in the declaration’s expressed interest in working “toward (its) eventual attainment” China won with its insistence on the bilateral nature of the disputes. The 2002 declaration stipulates that “territorial and jurisdictional disputes” should be resolved “through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”
Eight years later, following years of disinterest in Asia on the part of the Bush administration, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intervened at the Asean Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi in July 2010 to spearhead a collective effort to defend free navigation and restore stability in the disputed South China Sea. This development followed repeated confrontations resulting from Chinese unilateral military and government actions.
After nearly 10 years of talks, both China and Asean announced at a July 2011 Asean meeting in Bali an agreement on guidelines to implement joint activities and projects in the disputed waters and islets. Although the agreement was hailed by Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, who called it an “historic” achievement, it does not deal with the core issues. Differences remain on which areas of the South China Sea were being disputed after China laid claims to the entire region and the Philippines said that it would seek United Nations arbitration to define contested areas. A diplomatic source said that the joint cooperation guidelines came after Asean agreed to drop reference to negotiations with Asean as a group with China.
This year the Philippines, Vietnam, China and the US have been the countries with the most overt involvement in the dispute.
On July 27, the Philippines newest naval vessel, the USCGC Hamilton, a multi-mission surface combatant ship purchased from the US, received a warm greeting from Filipino Americans as it docked in Honolulu on its way to the Philippines to patrol the South China Sea. Prior to the Hamilton, the small Philippines Navy consisted of a few World War II era vessels. The Philippines is a defense treaty ally of the US.
The Philippines will deploy more vessels in the sea, where 15 private companies are ready to search for oil and gas in the waters off Palawan. In addition, the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic resources will put five monitoring vessels in the area manned by Philippine coast guardsman to provide support.
Even before the new vessel arrived, the Philippines raised China’s hackles when a trio of Philippine congressman landed on Pagasa Island, the only island in the Spratlys populated by Filipinos, and sang the national anthem with residents. Pagasa, also known as Tithu Island, lies about 480 kilometers (300 miles) west of the western Philippine province of Palawan. It has an airstrip, a military base and a small town hall, and is occupied by about 60 civilians.
At the end of July, the Philippines said it would seek regional backing for a plan seeking joint development of disputed areas in the South China Sea amid China’s increasingly robust assertions of its claims.
Legal experts from Asean will meet in Manila in September to discuss the proposal, foreign department Philippine spokesman Raul Hernandez told reporters.
He said the aim was to eventually get the 10 Asean nations, and later on China, to endorse the proposal to delineate the disputed sections of the strategically located and reputedly resources-rich area. “If we can define those disputed features then we can have the joint development of those areas,” Mr. Hernandez said. Areas not in dispute should be the exclusive preserve of the country that owns them, Mr. Hernandez concluded. From August 30 to September 4, Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III visited China and met with Chinese President Hu Jintao to discuss South China Sea issues................