Sunday, August 8, 2010
A Common Front Would Help Asean Win Out in the Great Game for the Spratlys
Essentially, there are two separate issues in the dispute over control of the South China Sea. The first involves only the littoral countries China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei (for these purposes Taiwan’s claims are the same as China’s.) The second is about freedom of navigation. That involves all major nations for whom the waterway is crucial for their shipping, including nearby countries like Indonesia as well as Japan and the United States.
Vietnam has been remarkably successful in getting the issue of control of the South China Sea back onto the international agenda, in the process underscoring its new ties with the United States and asserting Hanoi’s leadership of Asean on this issue.
China is furious but its reaction has brought further attention to the issue. It is being watched closely by Japan, while Russia and India continue to strengthen their relations with Vietnam, partly with the sea and navigation rights in mind.
The Southeast Asian countries in dispute with China, however, would be in a much stronger position to confront China’s claims if they were able to resolve their own conflicting claims with one another or at least engage in the joint exploitation of the sea to which they are, in theory, pledged. There is scant sign to date that they are going in that direction.
Essentially, there are two separate issues in the dispute. The first involves only the littoral countries China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei (for these purposes Taiwan’s claims are the same as China’s.)
The second is about freedom of navigation. That involves all major nations for whom the waterway is crucial for their shipping, including nearby countries like Indonesia as well as Japan and the United States.
As China claims dominion over the entire South China Sea as well as its various islands and rocks, acceptance of its claim would turn the sea into a private Chinese lake to which others could only have access with China’s consent, even though China and Taiwan between them own only about 20 percent of its coastline.
Indonesia has a separate issue. Although China’s claims do not impinge directly on any of its waters, they come so close to the Natuna gas field that issues of ownership of gas deposits could become disputed, as well as seabed rights northeast of the Natuna field.
Offshore oil and gas is important for the Southeast Asian states but much less so for China, for whom the region’s reserves are assumed to be relatively small compared to its massive needs. Likewise fishing is of some interest to all the nations but decades of over-fishing means this is less and less significant. China’s overriding interest is not a matter of resources but strategic positioning.
Of the various disputed island groups, it is the Spratly group that is the main bone of contention. Vietnam claims all the Spratlys by right of historical occupation even though most of them lie closer to the Philippine and Malaysian coasts. China’s claims are similarly based on history, real or imagined. The Philippines claims most but not all on a mixture of principles — the archipelago principle, continental shelf and occupation of empty territory. The Malaysian and Brunei claims are based on the continental shelf principle — the islands lie in a seabed less than 200 meters deep extending from their coast.
Currently, Vietnam has a physical presence on about 20, China about nine, the Philippines about eight, Malaysia three and Taiwan just one of the islands, rocks and shoals. With such conflicting bases for their claims, as well as the claims themselves, it will be extraordinarily difficult for the non-Chinese nations to get together. Nationalist sentiment runs against abandoning any claims. Seemingly meaningless rocks become national symbols.
The navigation issue is doubly important because the main shipping channels, through which pass a major portion of global sea trade, run to the north of the Spratlys, an area of widely varying depths and many shoals. The islands themselves are of scant economic value and only the continental shelves appear to offer oil and gas prospects.
On the question of history the non-Chinese could also form a common front — at least if they were better informed about their pre-colonial pasts. Vietnam’s claims are based on imperial records. But a much earlier claim can be made for the Cham empire, based in what is now central Vietnam. The Cham were a Hinduized, Austronesian-speaking people who ran much of the trade in the South China sea until the 15th century. Vietnam may be reluctant to make a claim based on a nation it later wiped out, but there is abundant evidence of trading across the southern and central part of this sea long before the Chinese became involved.
Despite the name given to it by Westerners, the South China Sea is more a Malay than a Chinese sea. In the days of the Cham empire it was known as the Cham Sea. Seafarers from Borneo ran the spice trade with China while those from Sumatra controlled the shipping that brought Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to India and Sri Lanka.
Indeed, if the Asean claimants were to start with a joint study of their history trading and fishing across the sea, they might have a better grasp of where their interests now lie.
Philip Bowring is former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review