TENSIONS RISE IN THE SPRATLY ISLANDS AND SOUTH CHINA SEA IN 2011

TENSIONS RISE IN THE SPRATLY ISLANDS AND SOUTH CHINA SEA IN 2011

In 2011 China has grown increasingly assertive in its maritime claims in the South China Sea and in a dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, which also lie near oil and gas deposits. Tensions in the South China Sea escalated amid accusations from the Philippines and Vietnam that China was becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claims to the sea, which the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea. Parts of the Spratly Islands---which the Philippines calls Kalayaan, or freedom---lie just over 100 miles from the Philippines but are more than 1,000 miles from China.

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “Across the region, militaries are bulking up, most notably China’s, which in August launched its first aircraft carrier, built on a Soviet-made hull. Beijing, which has boosted defense spending by annual average of more than 12 percent over the past decade, has poured money into its navy. It completed a huge new naval base last year on Hainan Island to accommodate attack and ballistic-missile submarines for its South Sea Fleet and has made far more rapid progress than expected in developing anti-ship missiles that could one day sink U.S. aircraft carriers. According to a recent Pentagon report, China will likely build “multiple” carriers of its own over the next decade. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, September 17 2011]

Early in 2011, Chinese vessels, including craft from the People’s Liberation Army Navy, erected posts and unloaded construction materials on and near a reef near the coast of Palawan. Sabban had the Chinese markers dismantled.

In May 2011 Vietnam accused China of slicing cables from an oil survey ship. In the meantime Vietnam is buying Russian submarines and hosting visits by the U.S. Navy. The Philippines has just bought what is now its navy’s biggest vessel: a 40-year-old former U.S. Coast Guard ship. Washington---which has a 20-year-old mutual-defense treaty with Manila---threw in a new weapons system for free.

China and Southeast Asia Set Guidelines on the South China Sea Dispute

In July 2011, Reuters reported “China and Southeast Asian nations officially approved guidelines on conduct in the South China Sea, a small sign of progress in the dispute and a potential boost for Beijing in defusing tensions before the United States joins the meetings on Bali in Indonesia. The one-page document is intended to drive the process of making the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the contested South China Sea more concrete. For years, Beijing has resisted calls for a binding code of conduct that would require disputes in the South China Sea to be solved peacefully and without threats of violence. [Source: Michael Martina, Reuters, July 21, 2011]

Officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed on the guidelines on Wednesday, ending almost a decade of deadlock, when China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and the ASEAN counterparts officially signed off on the agreement. "This afternoon ... the ministers of China and ASEAN countries formally endorsed the guidelines and also started implementation -- fully and comprehensively -- of the DOC," Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said.

Its acceptance was seen as a small but uncommon sign of cooperation on the dispute in the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN members -- the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam -- all claim territory. But Liu tried to steer dialogue away from the sensitive sea dispute and toward China-ASEAN trade cooperation, reiterating pledges to boost bilateral trade to $500 billion by 2015. "We are looking to the future. We want to be good friends, good partners and good neighbours with ASEAN countries," he told reporters after a closed-door China-ASEAN meeting.

China's acquiescence on the guidelines may be a means of mollifying ASEAN enough to take the topic off the table before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's arrival a few days later for the ASEAN Regional Forum, the biggest security conference in Asia. "Perhaps China agreed to it as a way of defusing the situation," said Ian Storey, a maritime security expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, who called the guidelines "boilerplate" and unlikely to have much impact. "It would make sense for China to maximise these opportunities since its image has been tarnished recently with its more muscular diplomacy," Storey said, noting that China wants to be seen as a positive player on the South China Sea.

The document didn’t seem to satisfy the Philippines. It remains unconvinced that the guidelines would be sufficient to end tensions in the area. While Chinese diplomat Liu Zhenmin called the guidelines a "milestone document," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that with no teeth, even such guidelines would be meaningless and that the Philippines still intends to bring the dispute to an international tribunal. "So we are signing an agreement with China (and) it's supposed to be a code of conduct, but China is saying on the other hand that they own everything," he told reporters, adding that the "necessary elements to make the guidelines succeed are still incomplete."

South China Sea Dispute Heats Up Again in 2012

In 2012 China stepped up its campaign to consolidate its claim to all waters and islands within a "nine-dashed line" that encloses most of the South China Sea, including large swaths of Southeast Asian countries' exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Gareth Evans wrote in Project Syndicate: “The South China Sea is making waves again. China's announcement of a troop deployment to the Paracel Islands follows a month in which competing territorial claimants heightened their rhetoric, China's naval presence in disputed areas became more visible, and the Chinese divided the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), whose foreign ministers could not agree on a communique for the first time in 45 years. All of this has jangled nerves - as did similar military posturing and diplomatic arm wrestling from 2009 to mid-2011. Little wonder: stretching from Singapore to Taiwan, the South China Sea is the world's second-busiest sea-lane, with one-third of global shipping transiting through it. [Source: Gareth Evans, Project Syndicate, Christian Science Monitor, July 30, 2012]

Early in 2012 China and the Philippines were involved in a month-long standoff at Scarborough Shoal, about 500 kilometers north of Half Moon Shoal and 220 kilometers west of the main Philippine island of Luzon. According to the Japanese newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The confrontation started April 10 when a Philippine Navy warship inspected Chinese fishing vessels at Scarborough Shoal, which is called Huangyan Island in China. Beijing immediately responded by sending patrol ships to the area, and a standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels in the waters has continued for more than one month. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 24, 2012]

The Philippines insisted the Chinese fishing vessels were inside the Philippines EEZ near Scarborough Shoal. The standoff broke up after several weeks without a resolution of the underlying legal issues. Separately, the Philippines decided to begin drilling for natural gas in the Reed Bank near its Palawan Island, a program to which China objects. [Source: Robert Haddick, Foreign Policy, August 3, 2012]

In June 2012, the Chinese government established "Sansha City" on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, which China seized from South Vietnam in 1974. Sansha will be the administrative center for China's claims in the South China Sea, to include the Spratly Islands near Reed Bank and Palawan, and Scarborough Shoal. China also announced plans to send a military garrison to the area, saying it had begun "combat-ready" patrols in waters it said were under its control in the South China Sea, after saying it "vehemently opposed" a Vietnamese law asserting sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands. [Ibid]

In July 2012, the Chinese navy said that one of its frigates had run aground on Half Moon Shoal, about 90 nautical miles off the western Philippine island of Palawan in the Philippine EEZ after reportedly shooing away Filipino fishermen. Reuters reported: “China said it was conducting a rescue mission and the Philippines said it was sending "assets" to the area to investigate and provide assistance if needed. "That's a very strategic location to strengthen their claim over the Reed Bank, they are getting closer to our territory, putting one foot inside our fence," one military official told Reuters. The Philippines scrambled aircraft and ships to the Reed Bank area last year after Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine survey ship. [Ibid]

ASEAN Fails to Agrees on Rules for South China Sea

In July 2012, ASEAN failed to hammer a firm agreement on how to deal with China and the South China Sea. Robert Haddick wrote in Foreign Policy, the “ASEAN conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, aimed at making progress on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, collapsed in acrimony and failed, for the first time in 45 years, to agree on a concluding joint statement. Vietnam and the Philippines were particularly upset that their Southeast Asian neighbors made no progress on a unified stance against Chinese encroachments in the sea.”[Source: Robert Haddick, Foreign Policy, August 3, 2012]

“The collapse of ASEAN's attempt to establish a code of conduct for settling disputes in the sea benefits China's salami-slicing strategy. A multilateral code of conduct would have created a legitimate framework for dispute resolution and would have placed all claimant countries on an equal footing. Without such a code, China can now use its power advantage to dominate bilateral disputes with its small neighbors and do so without the political consequences of acting outside an agreed set of rules. [Ibid]

At the ASEAN meeting, Cambodia sided with China and prevented the 10-nation bloc from issuing a customary concluding statement that covers achievements and concerns “which in 2012 primarily involved the South China Sea. In July 2012, Reuters reported: “Divisions between the 10 countries ASEAN follow a rise in incidents of naval brinkmanship involving Chinese vessels in the oil-rich waters that has sparked fears of a military clash. The Philippines said it "deplores" ASEAN's failure to address the worsening row, and criticized Cambodia -- a close ally of China -- for its handling of the issue during the foreign ministers' meeting. Without mentioning China, Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario told a news conference in Manila that one "member state's" intrusions into Philippine territory were part of a "creeping imposition" of its claim over the entire South China Sea and were raising the risk of a conflict...Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said he was "very disappointed" over the failure to issue a statement.[Source: Prak Chan Thul and Stuart Grudgings, Reuters, July 13, 2012]

“China has been accused of using its heavy influence over summit chair Cambodia and several other ASEAN members to block regional-level discussions on the issue and attempts to agree a binding maritime Code of Conduct to manage the dispute. The Philippines said it took "strong exception" to Cambodia's statement that the non-issuance of a communique was due to "bilateral conflict between some ASEAN member states and a neighboring country". [Ibid]

Chinese Police Plan to Board Ships in the South China Sea

In November 2012, according to a Reuters report, China announced that “police in the southern Chinese island province of Hainan will board and search ships which enter into what China considers its territorial waters in the disputed South China Sea, state media said, a move which could raise tensions further. New rules, which come into effect on January 1, 2013 will allow Hainan police to board and seize control of foreign ships which "illegally enter" Chinese waters and order them to change course or stop sailing, the official China Daily reported. [Source: Reuters, November 29, 2012]

"Activities such as entering the island province's waters without permission, damaging coastal defense facilities and engaging in publicity that threatens national security are illegal," the English-language newspaper said. "If foreign ships or crew members violate regulations, Hainan police have the right to take over the ships or their communication systems, under the revised regulations," it added.

China occasionally detains fishermen, mostly from Vietnam, who it accuses of operating illegally in Chinese waters, though generally frees them quite quickly. Hainan, which likes to style itself as China's answer to Hawaii or Bali with its resorts and beaches, is the province responsible for administering the country's extensive claims to the myriad islets and atolls in the South China Sea. The newspaper said that the government will also send new maritime surveillance ships to join the fleet responsible for patrolling the South China Sea.

Beijing and It South China Sea Rivals Feud Over Passport Map

In November 2012, AP reported: “China has enraged several neighbors with a few dashes on a map, printed in its newly revised passports that show it staking its claim on the entire South China Sea and even Taiwan. Inside the passports, an outline of China printed in the upper left corner includes Taiwan and the sea, hemmed in by the dashes. The change highlights China's longstanding claim on the South China Sea in its entirety, though parts of the waters also are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. [Source: Annie Huang, Associated Press, November 23, 2012]

China's official maps have long included Taiwan and the South China Sea as Chinese territory, but the act of including them in its passports could be seen as a provocation since it would require other nations to tacitly endorse those claims by affixing their official seals to the documents. Ruling party and opposition lawmakers alike condemned the map in Taiwan. [Ibid] "This is total ignorance of reality and only provokes disputes," said Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, the Cabinet-level body responsible for ties with Beijing. The council said the government cannot accept the map. [Ibid]

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters in Manila that he sent a note to the Chinese Embassy that his country "strongly protests" the image. He said China's claims include an area that is "clearly part of the Philippines' territory and maritime domain." The Vietnamese government said it had also sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi, demanding that Beijing remove the "erroneous content" printed in the passport. "Vietnam reserves the right to carry out necessary measures suitable to Vietnamese law, international law and practices toward such passports," Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said. [Ibid]

In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry said the new passport was issued based on international standards. China began issuing new versions of its passports to include electronic chips on May 15, though criticism cropped up only this week. "The design of this type of passports is not directed against any particular country," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily media briefing Friday. "We hope the relevant countries can calmly treat it with rationality and restraint so that the normal visits by the Chinese and foreigners will not be unnecessarily interfered with."

China Media Tell U.S. to "Shut Up" over South China Sea Tensions

According to a Reuters report: The stakes have risen in South China Sea as the U.S. military shifts its attention and resources back to Asia, emboldening its long-time ally the Philippines and former foe Vietnam to take a bolder stance against Beijing. The United States has stressed it is neutral in the long-running maritime dispute, despite offering to help boost the Philippines' decrepit military forces. It says freedom of navigation is its main concern about a waterway that carries $5 trillion in trade -- half the world's shipping tonnage. [Source: Reuters, August 5, 2012]

In August 2012, Reuters reported: “China's state-run media ramped up condemnation of the United States over tensions in the South China Sea, with the Communist Party's top newspaper telling Washington to "Shut up" and charging it with "fanning flames" of division in the region. The Chinese Foreign Ministry's condemned a U.S. State Department statement that said Washington was closely monitoring territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and that China's establishment of a military garrison for the area risks "further escalating tensions in the region". [Source: Reuters, August 6, 2012]

Beijing has said its disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and other southeast Asian claimants should be settled one-on-one, and it has bristled at U.S. backing for a multilateral approach to solving the overlapping claims. "We are entirely entitled to shout at the United States, 'Shut up'. How can meddling by other countries be tolerated in matters that are within the scope of Chinese sovereignty?," said a commentary in the overseas edition of the People's Daily, an offshoot of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's top newspaper. [Ibid]

The main, domestic edition of the newspaper was equally harsh, and accused Washington of seeking to open up divisions between China and its Asian neighbors. "Fanning the flames and provoking division, deliberately creating antagonism with China, is not a new game," said a commentary in the People's Daily domestic edition. "But of late Washington has been itching to use this trick."

The ire from Beijing shows the potential for tensions over the South China to fester into a wider diplomatic quarrel, even outright military confrontation remains unlikely. A week before, the People's Daily said China's "core interests" were at stake in its territorial claims across the South China Sea -- language that puts such claims on a similar footing with China's claims of indisputable sovereignty over Tibet and Xinjiang in its west. [Ibid]

Solutions to the South China Sea Dispute?

Gareth Evans wrote in Project Syndicate: “A sensible way forward would begin with everyone staying calm about China's external provocations and internal nationalist drumbeating. There does not appear to be any alarmingly maximalist, monolithic position, embraced by the entire government and Communist Party, on which China is determined to steam ahead. Rather, according to an excellent report released in April by the International Crisis Group, its activities in the South China Sea over the last three years seem to have emerged from uncoordinated initiatives by various domestic actors, including local governments, law-enforcement agencies, state-owned energy companies, and the People's Liberation Army. [Source: Gareth Evans, Project Syndicate, Christian Science Monitor, July 30, 2012. Evans was Foreign Minister of Australia from 1988-1996 and is President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group. [Ibid]

China's -foreign ministry understands the international-law constraints better than most, without having done anything so far to impose them. But, for all the recent PLA and other activity, when the country's leadership transition (which has made many key central officials nervous) is completed at the end of this year, there is reason to hope that a more restrained Chinese position will be articulated. [Ibid]

China can and should lower the temperature by re-embracing the modest set of risk-reduction and confidence-building measures that it agreed with Asean in 2002 - and building upon them in a new, multilateral code of conduct. And, sooner rather than later, it needs to define precisely, and with reference to understood and accepted principles, what its claims actually are. Only then can any credence be given to its stated position - not unattractive in principle - in favour of resource-sharing arrangements for disputed territory pending final resolution of competing claims. [Ibid]

The US, for its part, while justified in joining the Asean claimants in pushing back against Chinese overreach in 2010-2011, must be careful about escalating its rhetoric. America's military 'pivot' to Asia has left Chinese sensitivities a little raw, and nationalist sentiment is more difficult to contain in a period of leadership transition. In any event, America's stated concern about freedom of navigation in these waters has always seemed a little overdrawn. [Ibid]

One positive, and universally welcomed, step that the US could take would be finally to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, whose principles must be the foundation for peaceful resource sharing - in the South China Sea as elsewhere. Demanding that others do as one says is never as productive as asking them to do as one does. [Ibid]

ASEAN and a Solutions to the South China Sea

Takashi Shiraishi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Can there be a solution to the territorial stand-off in the South China Sea? This is the real question China and the ASEAN countries concerned have to answer. China's strategy is to insist on settling disputes one by one on a bilateral basis while avoiding not only the internationalization of South China Sea rows but also U.S. engagement. The country also seeks to bolster its naval power and marine surveillance capabilities and expand areas under its effective control. At the same time, it aims to enhance economic relations with neighboring countries with a view to positioning itself to pressure them more effectively in the medium and long term. The underlying way of thinking, according to Chinese academics, is what is pronounced in Chinese as "fen bie dui dai, ge ge ji po" meaning "deal with different people [enemies] in different ways and destroy them one by one." [Source: Takashi Shiraishi, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 24, 2012. Shiraishi is president of both the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization]

For their part, ASEAN countries can by no means stand up to China single-handedly. China's economy is 32 times larger than that of the Philippines and 59 times larger than that of Vietnam, as measured by gross domestic product. Given such disparities, ASEAN countries have no practical choice but to avoid military confrontation with China as much as possible and, instead, seek to negotiate with China by relying on anything they can use as leverage to press ahead with their stances. In 2010, Vietnam announced a comprehensive plan to reconstruct Cam Ranh Bay's port facilities, making it ready for the basing of U.S. naval vessels. In 2011, the country announced plans to purchase six submarines from Russia. The Philippines also has been studying measures to strengthen its alliance with the United States, including the use by U.S. armed forces of military bases and the deployment of U.S. naval vessels in the country. [Ibid]

ASEAN has been functioning as an effective lever for the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries--which have disputes with China--to deal with Beijing over the South China Sea strife. "ASEAN plus" forums, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, have taken up the region's maritime sovereignty issues since 2010. ASEAN foreign ministers who gathered in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in July 2012, however, failed to adopt a unified stand over disputes in the South China Sea. ASEAN's discord had been manipulated by Beijing with one Chinese leader after another--including President Hu Jintao--visiting Phnom Penh to pledge economic and military assistance and entice Cambodia, the chair of ASEAN for the year 2012, into respecting China's position. [Ibid]

During a foreign ministerial meeting in July 2011, ASEAN and China agreed on a series of guidelines for implementing the 2002 declaration. This accord was followed by a reaffirmation by leaders of ASEAN and China at their November summit of their intent "to move for the eventual realization of a [binding] regional code of conduct." Given the outcome of the foreign ministerial meeting in July, however, the association and China are likely to make little progress in their work on the formulation of the maritime code of conduct for the time being. [Ibid]

What will happen from now on? If ASEAN continues to be incapable of offering leverage to deal with China in line with the wishes of the Philippines and Vietnam, among other ASEAN countries, then Manila and Hanoi are likely to become increasingly serious about relying on the United States, Japan and Australia for leverage in internationalizing their territorial disputes with China. [Ibid]

Japan, the United States and Australia have been closely cooperating with ASEAN countries in the field of maritime security. In January this year, the United States released a new Defense Strategic Guidance, underlining the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region and planning to rebalance toward it by deploying 60 percent of the U.S. naval fleet in the region by 2020 instead of a fifty-fifty split between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Japan, which reaffirmed maritime security cooperation with ASEAN during the 2011 summit with the regional bloc, is considering providing Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam with patrol boats as part of its assistance in upgrading their maritime safety capabilities. [Ibid]

The South China Sea remains prone to frequent incidents related to territorial rows. For instance, in April to June this year, a Philippine Coast Guard vessel, trying to arrest a group of Chinese fishermen for poaching, was interfered with by Chinese marine surveillance ships. The incident resulted in a two-month offshore standoff between Manila and Beijing over the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines. Similar incidents are likely to happen frequently. To police such maritime irregularities, the countries concerned are deploying vessels of their law enforcement entities, such as maritime surveillance and coast guard ships, instead of naval vessels whose activities are rigidly regulated by international rules of engagement. Under the circumstances, there is a significant possibility that those non-naval vessels will unexpectedly clash with each other. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikicommons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated December 2012

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