SCS tension

China’s recent standoff with Vietnam over the placement of a large flotilla of oil rigs in the latter’s EEZ in South China Sea may create fresh round of tension and could seriously undermine the ASEAN unity in the long run if the group fails to take appropriate steps in an urgent manner.

This has however sparked a debate over the motive and timing of such an act, which is not ethical and legally correct. At the same time it is proving to be a major challenge to whole of Asia at a time when US President is advocating about a new US rebalancing policy towards Asia.

This step of China will not only push the ASEAN members into a corner but in the long run provide ample space for the outside powers to play a greater role in the management of geopolitical events in the whole region.

The South China Sea has geo-strategic importance not only for South East Asian nations but also to the whole and particularly to the of Asia Pacific region.

In fact, East Asian economies have been dependent on the life-line of sea lanes of communications that link Asia Pacific with Indian Ocean and Europe, America, Middle East and rest of Asia.

Preserving security and safety of maritime and aviation connectivity along with seeking a peaceful resolution for the disputes in South China Sea could prove to be in the interests of people in the region.

However, China has increasingly been trying to dominate the South China Sea, defying international laws and evading its responsibilities to international community.

Provocative act

No doubt, the deployment of Haiyang Shiyou 981 floating oilrig and the excessive number of vessels, including armed ships, fighters well within the Vietnam’s lawful EEZ and continental shelf has seriously violated Vietnam’s national sovereignty.

The deployment of an oil rig to Vietnam’s EEZ close to the Paracels Islands and its open admission to building structures and transforming into an island on the Johnson Reef in the Spratly Chain of Islands demonstrates Beijing’s relentless effort to disregard for the provisions of the DOC 2002 which bar any construction on disputed territories.

Against this backdrop, it is imperative that South-East Asian claimant states abandon any illusion of de-escalating tensions and securing their territorial rights on a purely bilateral basis with China. Thus, there is a necessity for a new approach.

Indeed, China’s deployment of the rig was provocative because the oil rig was accompanied by as many as 80 ships, including seven People’s Liberation Army Navy warships.

When Vietnam dispatched Coast Guard vessels to defend its sovereign jurisdiction, China responded by ordering its ships to use water cannons and to deliberately ram the Vietnamese vessels. These actions were not only highly dangerous, but caused injuries to the Vietnamese crew.

Along with Philippines, the most serious trouble in recent decades has flared between Vietnam and China. The Chinese seized the Paracels from Vietnam in 1974, killing more than 70 Vietnamese troops.

In 1988 the two sides clashed in the Spratlys, when Vietnam again came off worse, losing about 60 sailors. And now they are again flexing the military muscle in SCS by deploying oil rig in Vietnam’s EEZ.

Even in July 2012 China formally created Sansha city, an administrative body with its headquarters in the Paracels which it says oversees Chinese territory in the South China Sea-including the Paracels and the Spratlys.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines protested against this move. And now China wants that its territory should be now recognized from Paracelisland and under that assumption it is now deploying its military, oil rig and other installations in SCS, which however overlaps with the EEZ of Vietnam.

Territorial dispute

China, an emerging global power, has got into dispute with almost all its neighbors and despite that ASEAN and claimant countries of SCS are unable to take a concrete step to counter its aggressive move.

The latest confrontation is among several Chinese moves bolstering its hold on the South China Sea since around 2008.

China has expelled Philippines fishing boats from reefs and atolls, built scattered military outposts, demanded that foreign countries apply for permission to fish in the area, and dispatched a naval flotilla to reassert Chinese sovereignty over James Shoal off the coast of Borneo.

Despite scattered protests and steps by its neighbors to shore up their own presence in the area, nothing has effectively impeded China’s progress.

Though China has tried to justify its actions by claiming the rig’s operations were in Chinese “territorial waters” and had nothing to do with Vietnam, it lacks any legal foundation because there is no Chinese land feature within twelve nautical miles of Block 143 on which to base this assertion. Chinese statements refer to the Paracel Islands-and not Hainan Island-as the basis for its claim.

Authorities and experts in the world have pointed out that the so-called “U-shaped line” claimed by China has ambiguous explanation and no legal background attached to it.

In order to reinforce this illegal claim, China has attempted to make use of erroneous interpretation of the historical rights so that it could violate the legitimate rights of the continental shelf of other coastal nations in the South China Sea as it could intentionally dodge committed obligations under UNCLOS 1982.

Closer ties

All the claimants to the South China Sea have obligations to abide and adhere to international laws, ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Seaand early formulate the COC in order to manage conflicts and advance to resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea for peace, stability and development in the region and for common interest of the international community.

ASEAN members should coordinate their diplomatic language vis-à-vis China, speaking in unison, with the same diplomatic fervor to strengthen the image of unity among Southeast Asian claimant states.

Therefore, it is imperative for the ASEAN claimants that they should contemplate the establishment of closer ties among their naval forces, while exploring potential avenues for closer, institutionalized intelligence-sharing and defense cooperation.

Cooperation among claimants could start on gradual basis that would send a strong signal to China that the ASEAN cannot be divided on a bilateral basis.

It is also important that the claimant states coordinate and institutionalize their strategic network of defense cooperation with great powers such as the US and Japan.

However, enhanced exchanges among these countries would bring about common understanding of China’s strategic intention to the South China Sea, thus, helping to formulate a strategy.

The early formulation of COC needs to be institutionalized with higher regulations and legally binding nature that lay the foundation for establishment of an alliance, community or committee in the South China Sea.

An open mechanism of regional security could involve the great powers with various interests in the South China Sea in order to form the basis for establishment of a regional security structures in form of an “institutionalized balance of power”.

This mechanism would also serve as supplement to the formation of ASEAN Security Community in particular and an ASEAN-centered structure of East Asia security in general which could have a part in management of power, elimination of risks of conflicting, consolidation of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region.