“The sea belongs to nobody – but interests clash over its uses.”
At no other time in history do some Asean countries face several maritime challenges than during this second decade of the 21st. All because of the uses of the South China Sea and its resources – major shipping routes, important fishing grounds and abundant oil and gas reserves. But over and above those maritime pursuits is the question of territorial (land, water and air space) ownership as developed in law.
“The South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square kilometers.” Center of dispute is the Spratly Islands area. China’s unilaterally declared ‘nine-dash line’ ownership of 90% of the South China Sea overlaps with the competing claims of some Asean countries – Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Non-Asean claimant is Taiwan. Similarly claimed by China is Natuna Islands at the southern tip of South China Sea which is within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and sits on Indonesia’s maritime borders with Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Vietnam. Likewise, China’s recent announcement of a fishing ban to all fishing activities in Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago was strongly objected to by Vietnam.
Vietnam says it has sufficient legal and historical foundations testifying to its sovereignty over Hoang Sa and the sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its waters, EEZ and continental shelf in line with the UN Law of the Sea.
Scarborough Shoal which is well within the Philippine EEZ is contested too. (Japan is into a bitter territorial dispute with China over the Sinkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea).
At the recently concluded Summit of Heads of States held in Malaysia, Asean leaders expressed their concern at China’s massive reclamation in the Spratlys which “has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine, peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.” Asean foreign ministers were instructed to urgently address the matter constructively via frameworks “such as Asean-China relations.” The Asean Chairman’s statement also reasserted (i) “the importance of freedom of navigation in and over-flight in the South China Sea; (ii) called for the full implementation of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea;” and (iii) demanded that the parties concerned should resolve their differences in accordance with international law including the Law of the Sea treaty.
The rising tension in the disputed waters prompted the US to warn against militarization of the territorial disputes. Lately, satellite imagery showed the extensive reclamation activities for a land mass that could support an airstrip, apron, harbor, etc. which China defined as being within its “sovereign” territory. The US navy sent a littoral combat ship on its first patrol and used a P8-A Poseidon, the most advanced surveillance aircraft in the US arsenal, over the contested area. Prior to this development, the US had its 6th Naval Engagement Activity in Vietnam. Likewise, the Philippines and US militaries recently held its largest “Balikatan” exercises in years with nearly 12,000 troops participating (double the number that participated in 2014).
Coincidentally, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a leading provider of defense and security insight and information, noted that the rest of the Asean countries are modernizing their respective navies as part of a wider Southeast Asian trend towards greater maritime capabilities. Singapore has the most potent military in Southeast Asia. Myanmar, on the other hand, embarked on an ambitious program of indigenous shipbuilding backed up by naval exercises on its own.
The territorial sovereignty issue in the South China Sea had become an external sovereignty or regional security issue with environmental security threats revolving around exploitation of natural resources alongside strategic ones, i.e. potential military uses of the islands.
In all these maritime rivalries, ecological security ought to be recognized as an inseparable component of the concept of sovereignty to attain regional security. Contending states must recognize their joint responsibility for the protection of the transnational environment.
For the rich in marine and mineral resources but object of overlapping ownership claims Spratly islands group, some arguments favor cooperation to preserve/conserve the ecological wealth of the area rather than tackling head-on the sovereignty issue. In this regard, serious thought should be given to the long-standing suggestion for an Asean Area of Cooperation in the Spratlys as well as the possibilities for the designation of an internationally protected area status, i.e. Marine Peace Park, through multilateral cooperative options available. These could further elaboration of confidence and security building measures in both the military and civilian sectors by the adoption of less offensive military postures in defense of the environment.
The removal of confrontation between States is an important precondition for the removal of confrontation between humankind and the natural environment considering the fundamental necessity of securing the long-term availability of natural resources.
The pursuit of environmental security could become a major agent of change in international affairs, promoting an international order more compatible with human needs. Common sovereignty over natural resources should be recognized and given priority in the resolution of conflicts and hostilities among States.
Ambassador Amado Tolentino served as Coordinator of UNEPs Coordinating Body for the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA).