Monday, February 21, 2011

South China Sea Remains a sea of disputes

TWO truths about the disputes in the South China Sea are well-recognised: they are extremely complex, and much misunderstood. An illuminating day-long conference at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore on February 18th brought home a third. There is no realistic prospect of a settlement in the foreseeable future. The best that can be hoped is to manage the disputes without any resort to armed conflict.

Part of the difficulty is that the dispute has so many aspects—or rather there are so many separate disputes. The territorial issue that receives so much attention is itself a plethora of different and overlapping claims. China and Vietnam claim sovereignty over the Paracel island chain, from which China evicted Vietnam in 1974, in the dying days of the Vietnam war. Taiwan—because it is the “Republic of China”—mirrors China’s claim, so that huge unresolved dispute also has a bearing on this one. The same three parties also claim the Spratly archipelago, to the south. But in the south, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also have partial claims.

Some of these arguments might in theory be soluble under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), established in 1982. Some of the parties have tried to align their claim with UNCLOS. In 2009, for example, Malaysia and Vietnam made a joint submission, showing where they thought their claims lay, based on their continental shelves. This implied that the Spratlys—a collection of reefs, rocks and tiny islands—were all too small to support human habitation and hence have their own exclusive economic zones (EEZs) under UNCLOS.

China, however, objected to that submission and tabled its own map, with nine dotted lines outlining its claim. Joined up, the dotted lines give it not just the two chains, but almost the whole sea. There seems to be no basis for this in UNCLOS. But China points to history. It says the map has been in use since the Republic of China published it in 1946, and, until quite recently, nobody minded. Indonesia, in turn, subsequently objected to China’s objection, which gave China a claim over some Indonesian waters, too. According to American officials, China has upped the ante by talking of its territorial claims in the South China Sea as a “core” national interest, on a par with Tibet and Taiwan.

There is a huge amount at stake. Besides fisheries, the sea, particularly around the Spratlys, is believed to be enormously rich in hydrocarbons. The lure of such riches ought to make it attractive to devise joint-development mechanisms so that all could benefit. In practice, the resources potentially available make it even harder for any country to moderate its claim.

The sea is also a vital shipping route, accounting for a big chunk of world trade. It is the importance of the freedom of navigation and of overflight that has given America its pretext for louder involvement. This was initially welcomed by the members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations when voiced at a regional forum in Hanoi in July last year, So fiercely did China object to America’s rather disingenuous offer of “mediation”, however, that some countries may now be ruing it.

So a second related dispute is between two regional superpowers: China and America. In particular, America and China differ over whether military activities are permissible in another countries EEZs. America insists they are. China objects to them and has on occasion harassed America’s spy planes and survey ships.

A third dispute is between China and ASEAN. These two reached a common “Declaration on Conduct” (DoC) in 2002 in an attempt to minimise the risk of conflict. But efforts to turn it into a formal and binding code have got nowhere, partly because of China’s anger at ASEAN’s attempts to develop a common approach.

China argues that ASEAN has no role in territorial issues, and insists on negotiating with the other claimants bilaterally. ASEAN sees this as an effort to pick off its members one by one. It argues that its own charter forces members to consult, as they do before each working group on the code of conduct (the next one is due in March).

Optimists point out that, distant though any settlement seems to be, at least the DoC has helped keep tensions down. Indeed, since 1988, when China and Vietnam clashed near the Spratlys, there have been no armed flare-ups. Tension rose in 1995, when China was found to have built on Mischief Reef, claimed by the Philippines. Fishermen are sometimes locked up for encroaching in another country’s claim. But the risk of escalation into conflict has seemed limited.

It is even possible to claim that the “self-restraint” the DoC calls for is being observed, since no new uninhabited islands or rocks have been occupied. However, that may be because none of those that is left is remotely big enough, and on those that were already occupied, building has continued, in some cases as if the claimants hope to turn rocks, or even “low-tide elevations”, into real islands—a practice not recognised under UNCLOS.

In their complexity, the South China Sea disputes provide material for endless scholarly bickering. Now that America has made it a focus for its re-engagement in Asia’s seas as a superpower and guarantor of the peace, and China has made clear it resents this, they also present some serious risks. Banyan, for the Economist

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