ELEVEN years after my verbal exchanges with the Chinese head of delegation at the ARF ISG/CBM meeting in Bangkok in early March 1999, I was elated to learn that the South China (West Philippine) Sea issue has escalated to the level of ministers. The escalation was caused by two developments.
In March 2010, Beijing told the visiting US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg that the South China Sea is now considered one of China’s “core national interest,” making it at par with Taiwan and Tibet. The following month, Rear Admiral Zhang Huachen, deputy commander of China’s East Sea Fleet, declared that his country’s naval strategy had shifted “from coastal defense to far sea defense” covering three stages, the first of which would encompass the “first island chain” including islands from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines. This has made the South China Sea the first battleground.
American reactions came from two top officials. At the June 2010 dialogue of defense ministers from the Asia-Pacific region held in South Korea, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asserted that US interest in the SCS was ensuring “stability, freedom of navigation, and free and unhindered economic development.” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton upped the ante at the July 2010 ARF Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam by declaring that “the US has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” Clinton also made a thinly-veiled criticism of China’s territorial claims in the SCS/WPS and offered US assistance in mediating the disputes in the area.
In reaction to Clinton’s statement, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi warned the US not to “internationalize” the SCS issue, adding that this “would only make the matter worse and more difficult to solve.” He said further that “international practice shows that the best way to resolve these types of disputes are direct bilateral negotiations between the countries involved.”
The difficult SCS issue reached the summit level when US President Barack Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao tackled it on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia on November 19, 2011. In a clear reference to the US, Wen said “outside forces had no excuse to get involved in the dispute.”
The upgrading of the SCS in the hierarchy of China’s national interest and China’s claim to the SCS in its entirety suggest that the SCS issue would defy solution. China will never consent to a multilateral approach, especially one brokered by the US, owing to its sensitivity to national sovereignty. The Chinese have been calling the SCS
“Nanhai” and referring to it as “survival space.” Thus, China has been unyielding in defending its sweeping claim over the SCS.
It may be contended that China has shown a readiness to play the role of a friendly neighbor by signing with Asean the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002. But the Declaration is more like a statement of intent or a confidence-building measure that takes cognizance of China’s dialogue relationship with Asean. True, the Declaration makes references to the resolution of disputes by peaceful means, respect for freedom of navigation and overflight above the SCS, intent to refrain from inhabiting uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, etc., and reaffirmation of the need to adopt a code of conduct in the SCS. It is, however, wishful thinking to expect China to be tied down by a binding and enforceable code of conduct. China’s present reclamation activities have rendered the Declaration obsolescent.
It is incumbent upon the claimant states and the international community to be vigilant in monitoring and observing Chinese moves in the SCS and to counteract such moves. Asean, as a group, should finally muster the solidarity to confront China on the whole gamut of the SCS issue. Should Asean remain blind to the rising “great wall of sand” consisting of Chinese new harbors and airstrips on various reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands?
Disinclination to question the Chinese moves is tantamount to giving way to China’s agenda in the Asia-Pacific region.
As I emphasized at the ARF meeting in Bangkok in 1999 “There is a need to refrain from taking unilateral acts that are inimical to the peace and stability of the region. There is a need to be attuned to the sensitivity of states handicapped by disparities… There should be a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea wherein everybody follows certain rules rather than makes its own rules.”