South China Sea: How we got to this stage


    Fourth of a series

    VIETNAM, Malaysia, the Philippines and some other ASEAN countries kept on transforming and expanding occupied islands, reinforcing their administrative management of them, and accelerated the development of oil and gas in surrounding waters. They also made occasional arrests of Chinese fishermen working in these waters. One common effort of these countries is to solidify their illegal occupation and extend the territorial dispute to the maritime sphere. What they were trying to do was more of denying the existence of the disputes than of shelving them. This continuously enraged the Chinese public and media, eliciting sustained attention.

    Vietnam was the most active violator of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). For example, in April 2003, it held a commemoration to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the “Liberation of the Nansha Islands.” In June, it signed a secret pact with Indonesia on the delimitation of continental shelf under the South China Sea. In April 2004, it organized the first commercial tour to the Nansha Islands. In early 2005, it published a revised map of Vietnam, which included China’s Xisha and Nansha Islands into its Khanh Hoa Province. In early 2006, Vietnam and Malaysia set up a navy hotline to coordinate resource development and settlement of their disputes about the Chinese islands. In April, it started another bidding round for oil blocks in surrounding waters, and announced cooperation with a third-party on building natural gas transmission pipelines in the Nansha Islands. In May 2007, it conducted an extensive geological survey in surrounding waters using a charted foreign surveying ship; a month later, it held elections of “National Assembly representatives” on some of the occupied Nansha islands.

    In April 2003, Malaysia sent four flotillas totaling 11 surveying vessels to the waters around Nantong Reef (Louisa Reef) to conduct prospecting operations; in May, it organized an international maritime challenge in waters around Danwan Reef and approved for the first time commercial tours to Yuya Shoal organized by travel agencies. In Nov. 2004, it published stamps showing a Malaysian map with newly included Nansha islands. In Aug. 2008, Malaysia’s Defense Minister landed on Danwan Reef with some 80 journalists to declare “sovereignty.”

    In April 2003, the Philippines celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Kalayaan Municipality on Zhongye Island. In June 2006, it started to renovate and upgrade the airstrip and other facilities on the island. In March 2008, it set up satellite communications facilities on some of the occupied islands and shoals.

    But it must be admitted that despite a continuing tug-of-war in the South China Sea, the general situation was under control before 2009. Soon thereafter, things became more complicated, mostly due to an official deadline set by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), according to which relevant states should submit claims over a continental shelf extending the 200 nautical miles from its territorial sea by May 15, 2009. An even greater factor is the introduction of the American Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy.

    Shortly after taking office in Jan. 2009, the Obama administration signaled that it would correct the Bush administration’s misplaced foreign policy by shifting the US strategic priority to the Asia-Pacific region, which obviously contributed to the confidence of the other claimants in the South China Sea to challenge China.

    Between Jan. and Feb. 2009, the Philippines’ House of Representatives and the Senate adopted the Territorial Sea Baselines Bill, which claims China’s Huangyan Island and some islands and reefs in the Nansha Islands as Philippine territory. On May 6, choosing to ignore the outstanding territorial and maritime delimitation disputes in these waters, Vietnam and Malaysia jointly submitted to the CLCS information on the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the South China Sea. On May 7, Vietnam separately submitted to the CLCS information on the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, claiming sovereignty over China’s Xisha and Nansha Islands. Under such circumstances, China had no choice but to submit to the CLCS the preliminary survey findings on the outer limits of its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, in order to prevent further undermining of its own interests.

    Meanwhile, US started to have frictions with China in the South China Sea. 2009 alone saw at least five confrontational incidents between US and Chinese ships, with the USNS Impeccable incident being the most conspicuous.

    The year of 2010 witnessed a faster shifting in the US policy on the South China Sea issue, which showed an inclination to “take sides.” At the ministerial meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum held in Hanoi, Vietnam, on July 23, 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on the South China Sea issue, stating that the United States “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,” and emphasized that claimants should pursue their territorial claims and accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with the Convention. Later, Clinton wrote in her memoir: “That was a carefully chosen phrase, answering the earlier Chinese assertion that its expansive territorial claims in the area constituted a ‘core interest.’ “ Clinton continued to make a series of remarks on the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific policy and the South China Sea issue on other occasions. Meanwhile, the US has beefed up its presence and enhanced military exercise efforts in the region.

    On the other hand, the Chinese side continued its diplomatic efforts, in order to maintain stability in the South China Sea and diffuse tensions with ASEAN countries. China achieved some progress for its painstaking efforts to seek to resolve disputes via peaceful talks. At the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting (10+1) held in Bali, Indonesia, in July 2011, the Guidelines to Implement the DOC was adopted by China and ASEAN countries. China reached some understanding with the Philippines and Vietnam through bilateral negotiations. Yet these efforts were not enough to offset US’s Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy, and claimants like the Philippines and Vietnam, in turn, didn’t display much restraint.

    They began to step up their reclamation efforts on the encroached islands and reefs and frequently conduct military exercise with the US near the South China Sea. Some countries even intended to group-up against China, taking a series of provocative actions in disregard of China’s concern. In March 2011, the Philippines military disclosed plans to invest $230 million in the renovation of the barracks and the airports on the South China Sea islands. In June and July, the Philippines and Vietnam conducted a series of joint exercises with other foreign powers in the disputed waters. Looking to strengthen the Philippines’ territorial and maritime claims in this region, Aquino III ordered the official use of the “West Philippines Sea” to replace the internationally standardized geographical name of “South China Sea,” and such move even temporarily gained some US official acknowledgement and, to some extent, it gained official recognition from the US. In March 2012, the Philippines and Vietnam reached an agreement on joint military exercise and maritime border patrol in the South China Sea. In April, Vietnam dispatched several monks to some temples on South China Sea islands.

    These provocative activities by some ASEAN member countries and the US intervention have been closely watched and widely reported in China, evoking strong repercussions among the public. Under the doubling-down pressure of policy sustainability and public opinion, China’s restraint policy is approaching to its brink.

    [Ms. Fu Ying is chairperson of Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress; chairperson of Academic Committee of China’s Institute of International Strategy, CASS; and specially invited vice chairperson of China Center for International Economic Exchanges. Mr. Wu Shicun, PhD, is senior research fellow and president of the National Institute of the South China Sea Studies. The article was published in the May 9 issue of The National Interest.]


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