South China Sea

Maritime sovereignty disputes in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, have been a source of tension and a destabilizing factor in the Asia-Pacific region.

To translate the vision of “a peaceful and prosperous Community” into reality, ASEAN needs to address internal differences and garner a collective power of unity that pushes for a peaceful and durable solution to the South China Sea issue, such as setting up mechanisms to maintain maritime order and stability, prevent tensions and avoid escalation into armed conflicts.

Mounting tensions in the South China Sea recently have stemmed from the large-scale renovation of reefs and atolls by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the ensuing construction of dual-use infrastructures on these artificial islands.

Such activities by the PRC constitute serious violations of international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (the 1982 UNCLOS), and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (the DOC).

Chinese activities have changed the status quo in the South China Sea, altered facts and natural features, endangered marine environment, violated freedom and safety of maritime and air navigation, and heightened regional security dangers, all to the detriment of peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

To deliberate the ongoing tension, recently, Centre for Asian Strategic Studies, India (CASS-India) had organized an international workshop on ‘Emerging Developments in East Sea (South China Sea): Regional Geopolitics’ in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The event was attended by several scholars from various ASEAN members and India, China, US, Japan and Australia. During their agenda presentations from Malaysian and international scholars, there were many insightful discussions and exchange of views and assessments among participating officials.

In fact, the international community has strongly denounced illegal activities by the PRC, particularly in the South China Sea, since Chinese actions have heightened the risks of tensions and ignited a new regional arms race, affecting peace and stability in the region and beyond. Any attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea must therefore be met with a maximum extent of denunciation.

ASEAN countries and world major powers alike (the US, Japan, India, Australia and Russia) also have a stake and a role to play in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Countries concerned need to sustain active engagement, and adopt measures against any unilateral attempts to change the status quo, violate navigation and over-flight safety and security in the South China Sea, and cause instability in the region.

Such engagement, based on the respect for international law and national sovereignty, sovereign rights and judicial rights of littoral countries, shall serve to protect the legitimate rights and interests of parties concerned, while enabling major powers to exercise their responsibility for the maintenance of peace, stability and development in the region, to the common good of all parties and of the international community.

The process of constructing ASEAN-China Code of Conducts of Parties in the South China Sea (the COC), recently stalled due to the PRC’s “delaying tactics”, should be reinvigorated to achieve concrete progress.

Centric role

Any member country assuming the ASEAN Chairmanship should play the centric role in upholding ASEAN unity and mediating differences among claimants and related parties.

ASEAN should make concrete efforts in setting up a group of Experts and Eminent Persons to supervise the process of drafting the COC, and duly considering new mechanisms for an effective implementation of any code of conduct to be concluded in the future.

It should also be ensured that, throughout the process of seeking a fundamental and durable solution to the South China Sea issue, all parties concerned must avoid the use of force and the threat to use force, and refrain from any activities that could complicate or escalate disputes and affect regional peace and stability.

However, ASEAN should put into full play existing mechanisms and frameworks for regional cooperation with regards to South China Sea disputes.

There is also a need to institutionalize fresh initiatives and new cooperation models (namely the ASEAN Maritime Forum, the Extended ASEAN Maritime Forum and the tripartite consultation mechanism among three claimant countries of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines) to supplement existing mechanisms.

Yet, ASEAN should play the central role in organizing for contestants and related parties to exchange views and perceptions on maritime issues, as well as proposing solutions to emerging maritime challenges.

Prior to the normalization of relations between China and Vietnam in 1991, the South China Sea featured prominently on two occasions.

First, in January 1974, a Chinese naval flotilla invaded the Paracel Islands and expelled the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam.

At this time Vietnam was still divided between North and South. Second, in March 1988, while Vietnam was still engaged in Cambodia, a Chinese naval force attacked Vietnamese military engineers on features in the South China Sea and took possession of Fiery Cross and Johnson South reefs.

In 1992, shortly after Vietnam and China normalized their diplomatic relations, the two sides became embroiled in a confrontation over oil prospecting rights in the waters around Vietnam’s Tu Chinh reef located off its southeastern coast.

Later in the 1990s another spat erupted when China awarded oil-prospecting rights to Crestone Oil, an American company, in waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Friction between China and Vietnam over sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea erupted in 2007 when China imposed a unilateral fishing ban in the South China Sea above twelve degrees north latitude.

China enforced this ban by boarding Vietnamese boats and seizing their catch and communications gear. In some instances Chinese vessels rammed Vietnamese boats.

Several sunk and there were fatalities. Later China arrested Vietnamese fishermen and held them until payment of large fines.

Also in 2007, China began to exert pressure on foreign oil companies to cease their operations in Vietnamese waters or face difficulties in their China-based operations.

A major turning point in the South China Sea dispute came when the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf set a May 2009 deadline for the submission of claims for extended continental shelves beyond 200 nautical miles.

Overlapping claims

China, for the first time, officially submitted a map containing nine-dash lines around the South China Sea and claimed sovereignty over all the features within this line including adjacent waters. China’s nine-dash line overlaps deeply into the EEZs of littoral states, including Vietnam.

This overlapping area soon became a zone of contention as Chinese maritime law enforcement ships attempted to enforce sovereignty. For example, Chinese civilian ships began to interfere with the commercial operations of oil-exploration vessels 4 operating in Vietnam’s EEZ.

There were several public incidents where Chinese ships either interfered with or cut the cables of foreign vessels conducting seismic surveys in Vietnam’s EEZ.

In 2012 when Vietnam’s National Assembly adopted the Law of the Sea of Vietnam setting out its maritime boundaries, China’s National Offshore Oil Company responded by putting exploration blocs that overlapped with Vietnam’s EEZ out to international tender.

Recurrent friction over territorial disputes in the South China Sea between Vietnam and China has continued up to the present. No incident was more serious than China’s placement of a mega oil-drilling platform, the Hai Yang Shi You 981, in disputed waters in May-July 2014.

The HYSY 981 was accompanied by a mixed Chinese flotilla comprising more than eighty naval warships, Coast Guard ships, tug boats and fishing craft. This number grew to more than one hundred at the height of the crisis.

Chinese military aircraft flew overhead. Vietnam responded by sending out Coast Guard and Fisheries Surveillance Force vessels to protest China’s breach of its sovereign jurisdiction.

This resulted in daily confrontations involving deliberate ramming by both sides and the use of high-pressure fire hoses by Chinese ships directed at the bridges and communications masts of Vietnamese vessels.

Vietnam claimed it made over thirty diplomatic representations to China, including attempts to activate hot lines, during May to no avail. This crisis marked the most serious deterioration in bilateral relations since the Sino-Vietnamese border of 1979.

The South China Sea with over 3.7 million sq km surface area provides the regional states and the international community a strategically important maritime highway for the transportation of general and specialized cargo and energy supply and critical shipping routes between Pacific and Indian Ocean.

The South China Sea is a region of growing strategic interest for many countries in the world, including the United States and other extra-regional powers.

More than one-third of the world’s seaborne trade flows through its contested waters. Its fisheries are an important source of revenue for the countries it adjoins.

While the potential oil and gas reserves that lie underneath the South China Sea are difficult to quantify, they are likely significant.

Despite the agreement of DOC had been signed between ASEAN and China on 4 Nov 2012, there has been significant tensions in recent years in the South China Sea and it is feared to raise tensions in the existing dispute among the claimants.

The South China Sea is an old problem involving the dignity and ‘face’ of the nations involved and is complicated by the involvement of non-claimant parties with genuine vested interest.

Land reclamation

The international community is deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states.

Since Chinese land reclamation efforts began in December 2013, China has reclaimed land at seven of its eight Spratly outposts and, as of June 2015, had reclaimed more than 2,900 acres of land.

By comparison, Vietnam has reclaimed a total of approximately 80 acres; Malaysia, 70 acres; the Philippines, 14 acres; and Taiwan, 8 acres.

China has now reclaimed 17 times more land in 20 months than the other claimants combined over the past 40 years, accounting for approximately 95 percent of all reclaimed land in the Spratly Islands.

China reiterated that its construction on the islands and reefs of Spratly Islands is completely within its own sovereignty, and does not target or affect anyone.

But it is totally not true for the other claimants. China’s expansion and upgrading of the land cover seven features such as Chigua, Johnson South Reefs, Gaven Reefs, Cuarteron Reefs, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reefs is in largely within Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and Continental Shelf (CS) of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, especially in the Mischief Reef which is approximately 135 km from the West of Philippines.

Clearly, China is attempting to elevate whatever features it has to “island” status in order gain the 200 nautical mile EEZ.

With these facilities, China has capability to block Vietnam’s supply routes, and Philippines access to their controlled islands and rocks there.

And China’s fishing squads, armed with financial, technical and administrative supports from central and local governments, can utilize facilities on the artificial islands to extend their duration and scope of their fishing activities, which will most likely stoke tensions with other claimants as they intrude into the EEZ of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, and court confrontation with those countries’ fishermen and law enforcement forces.

China may also attempt to establish greater sovereignty over these disputed features and may establish an Air Defence Zone in the South China Sea, much like it did in 2013 in the East China Sea.

China may also use the reclamation sites as locations for anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, including radars, electronic listening equipment, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and manned and unmanned aircraft.

Moreover, China’s A2/AD systems stationed in these artificial islands in the Spratly islands could support China to challenge military or even civil presence of any countries in the South China Sea.

It means that, freedom of navigation and over flights in the South China Sea is being threatened by China.

China’s illegal and aggressive actions have made countries having interests in the South China Sea in particular and world community at large anxious because the freedom of navigation and over flights in the South China Sea is being threatened.

Facing with China’s illegal and aggressive activities, ASEAN member States are doing their utmost, including military modernization efforts, to protect their legal rights in the South China Sea.

The move could create a new armed race in the region. With these great concerns, it is strongly stressed that turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.

Ensuring peace

It is essential to ensure that peace, stability, security, and freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the South China Sea are maintained and not jeopardized by any parties.

In this regard, all parties concerned are to ensure the full and effective implementation of the DoC towards building, maintaining, and enhancing mutual trust and confidence among them and exercising self-restraint in their actions.

Experts have highly praised strong commitment by ASEAN leaders in recent ASEAN Summit in ensuring a peaceful management of the South China Sea.

It has been applauded that Malaysia’s role as the Chairman of ASEAN taking the path of ensuring that ASEAN holds centrality on issues concerning its members as well as that involving their dialogue partners.

Though, there are differences in opinion among member states on their approaches with their dialogue partners, experts strongly believe that ASEAN and its member states can overcome their differences in order to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.

It is being urged that China and ASEAN should conclude a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea as soon as possible, so as to break the vicious cycle and not let disputes sour the broader relationship. If all parties adhere to international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that is the best outcome.

However, a Code of Conduct is the best way to govern the competing claims to the waters, and urge that consultations must be intensified.

This CoC would be the key instrument in ensuring the proper management of these vital sea lanes upon which so much and so many depend.

The CoC will serve as an effective tool for preventive diplomacy consisting of promoting confidence, preventing accidents and managing accidents in the South China Sea.

ASEAN and ASEAN-led mechanisms should continue to play an important role in maintaining peace, stability as well as solving the disputes. International community, especially countries having interests in the region should continue with attempts to protect environment, freedom and security of navigation and over flights, peace, stability and prosperity in the region.    

In order to ensure the safety of regional waters as a strategic focal point of sea-lanes, It is with an extreme importance to enhance capabilities for maritime domain awareness and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) with ASEAN countries.
The maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea should be accorded with higher primacy than ever before to achieve the shared goal of building ASEAN into a peaceful and prosperous Community.