Maritime convulsions in the ‘Asean’ seas


“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).


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  1. Crisostomo Dela Cruz on

    Just economic sanctions of the World will stop this GREEDY GIANT. Poseidon and Shiloh in positions will make them think twice now that the U.S. of A is not joking.

  2. Vic PenetranteVic on

    I am a Filipino and my first impulse was to fight for what is rightfully ours. But the same feeling goes with the Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian and others.
    It is human nature to want to have something, to own or possess a thing, and oftentimes to be selfish of that possession. In case of many claimants, the strongest usually get what they are fighting to get.
    It is good to have a big brother or friends who can help, but that usually extends and expands the conflict.
    The most amicable settlement is a TREATY, like the Antarctic Treaty approved by most of the countries in the world. Apart from free navigation and air-space travel, the treaty prohibits military activities and mineral mining, prohibits nuclear explosion and nuclear waste disposal, supports scientific research, and protects the ecosystem or ecozone.
    The big question is will China stop its destabilizing activities and the contending cxountries agree, including China, of a West Philippine Sea/South China Sea TREATY?

    • sonny dela cruz on

      its not gonna work. China is so stubborn that they think they are already untouchable with their military might. The United States is spending billions of dollars a day right now with the Supercarrier and an armada of military ships to contained the Chinese. Lets wait whats going to happened next.

  3. sonny dela cruz on

    The only way there could be PEACE in the region is now to put back China 50 years ago where it belongs. The Asia-Pacific nations cannot have cooperation with PRC Chinese because they are militarily strong and have a cultural traits of GREED. Make them weak like before and peace will reign again in the region..

    • The United States and its European allies made China what it is today with their massive economic investments and it is only the United States and its European allies that have the power and the might to UNDO this monster that they have created.