Thursday, June 23, 2011

David v Goliath battle takes shape over Spratlys

TENSIONS caused by the South China Sea territorial disputes continue to escalate with the holding of military exercises by virtually all parties concerned.
China conducted three days of military exercises in the resources-rich area, simulating efforts to capture islands.

China's military capacity will rapidly increase. Beijing already announced its intention to substantially add to its maritime surveillance force, including ships and aircraft.

Contesting China's territorial claims are Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, which are no match for Beijing militarily, individually or jointly.
These small nations have been calling on the United States to remain in the region to provide some balance.

The Americans have been conducting an annual combined exercise with the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Exercises with Vietnam are also planned.

While the islands being disputed are small and largely uninhabited, there are believed to be vast deposits of oil and natural gas under the seabed.

Vietnam and the Philippines have accused China of harassing their survey vessels while they were undertaking exploratory work, charges Beijing denied.

But China called on other claimants to stop any exploration for oil without its permission.

The US, while ostensibly an ally of the Philippines, announced that it took no position on sovereignty over islands, rocks and reefs in the South China Sea and offered to help mediate the dispute, an offer rejected out of hand by China.

The claims and counterclaims stem from the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world's oceans.

In May 2009, China, while rebutting a joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam, asserted: "China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof."

Its map showed a U-shaped dotted line extending from China and enclosing virtually the entire South China Sea while hugging the coastline of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

This April, China again wrote to the commission to rebut a Philippine claim.

After repeating its assertion of sovereignty, it added: "China's sovereignty and related rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea are supported by abundant historical and legal evidence."

However, no evidence was produced.

The problem with such a sweeping claim is that it seems to deny the right of other coastal states, which certainly cannot be the intention of the UN convention.

Of the two main island groups involved, China controls the Paracel Islands outright, having ousted a South Vietnamese garrison there in 1974, in the waning days of the Saigon administration.

At the time, China was North Vietnam's ally and Hanoi did not voice support for South Vietnam against China.

Since possession is nine-tenths of the law, China's position there seems strong.

Such is not the case, however, with the Spratly Islands, where Beijing controls only a handful of tiny islands, with others being held by Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Recently, Singapore, which is not a claimant, called on China to clarify its claims "as the current ambiguity as to their extent has caused serious concerns in the international maritime community".

This is a constructive move and China should have no objection to clarifying its claims, since Beijing has said that it wanted the situation to be resolved peacefully.

China voiced the hope that "relevant countries work along with China to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea" signed by China and Asean in 2002.

That is an excellent sentiment. The problem is that China refused to take the next step, which is to agree on modalities with Asean for settling the rival claims.

Instead, China insists that it will negotiate only bilaterally with the Southeast Asian countries, giving Beijing a huge advantage because of its size.

There is something that all the claimants should be willing to do. Since all are signatories of Unclos, they should declare their willingness to be bound by the dispute resolution mechanism set up under the convention, namely the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

If any country refuses to accept the tribunal's jurisdiction, then it will be clear that it is either insincere about hoping for a peaceful resolution or is not confident about the strength of its legal position, or both.
By Frank Ching for The New Straits Times

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