December 25, 2012
China has traditionally been a continental power focused on its landward Eurasian border. But a resurgent China in the 21st century will pay increasing attention to its maritime space as its gaze turns eastwards toward the United States, the dominant power of the 20th century, and Japan, which it has overtaken economically but with whom China has traditionally had a difficult relationship.
In response to a May 2009 submission by Vietnam and Malaysia informing the United Nations of the demarcation of their continental shelf boundary, China reiterated its territorial claims and submitted its nine-dash map enclosing most of the South China Sea. This was the first time the map was circulated as a UN document, although it was based on a 1947 Kuomintang government map. The Chinese move unsettled several ASEAN states, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, but also Malaysia and Brunei, which all have competing claims.
The nine-dash map is widely circulated in China, appears prominently in many government buildings and is now reproduced in Chinese passports. As a consequence, many members of the Chinese public believe the entire area falls within China’s territorial waters — if highly charged comments on the Internet are indicative of wider opinion. The failure by knowledgeable Chinese international lawyers and foreign-policy makers to publicly clarify the Chinese position on the South China Sea has increased apprehension in the region.
China’s public assertion of historical rights is not sustainable under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, although the claim to sovereignty over the rocks and islands within the nine-dash line could be consistent with the convention. Chinese naval and fishery protection vessels have mounted patrols in waters within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of claimant states, while China has offered leases on petroleum exploration blocks within Vietnam’s EEZ, even though China could not claim an EEZ overlapping with these areas extending from islands represented by its map.
Because of these developments, ASEAN meetings continue to be distracted by the South China Sea issue. At the close of the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh on 18 November, the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, said there was an agreement not to internationalise the issue. Left unchallenged, such an agreement would reflect the Chinese position on the issue. However, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, submitted letters formally disagreeing with this view and the chairman’s final statement did not contain such a reference. If the Cambodian delegation had insisted on its version, the likely outcome would have been a repeat of the ASEAN ministerial meeting in July this year, which failed for the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history to issue a joint communiqué.
As a major power, China’s preference is for bilateral negotiations — where it exercises greater leverage. While China enjoys excellent ties with ASEAN, it has referred to ASEAN–China and ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea) as 10+1 and 10+3 meetings, highlighting China’s approach of dealing with ASEAN members bilaterally. Attempts to nudge China in the direction of the adjudication of maritime boundary disputes by the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea will not succeed. In ratifying the UN Law of the Sea Convention, China opted out of compulsory binding dispute settlement. Instead, ASEAN and China have focused on developing norms, building mutual confidence and promoting cooperative behaviour, as seen in the 2002 ASEAN–China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
ASEAN is now prioritising engagement with China on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which will focus on issues such as the prevention of incidents at sea, crisis management, confidence-building measures and encouraging joint development. But progress is likely to be slow. While a grand package should be envisaged, it would be timely to move first on the implementation of confidence-building measures. These measures should focus on increasing exchanges and discussions at a non-official level aimed at reducing misperceptions and encouraging mutual confidence, establishing a hot line at the operational level between navies and coast guard units of regional states, agreeing on prior notification of military exercises in the South China Sea, and facilitating the rescue at sea of people and vessels in distress.
Provocative gestures, such as China’s decision to include its nine-dash map in its new passports, should be avoided. All claimant states are also guilty of occupying uninhabited islands and land features. They should agree to refrain from doing so. The aim should be to strengthen crisis management capabilities and to lay the groundwork for agreement on rules and procedures aimed at defusing tensions. From a Chinese perspective, the management of China’s relationship with ASEAN is critical. As a resurgent power with an increasingly global presence, many states will be watching how China deals with its neighbours. Lessons will be drawn on the impact for them of a rising China.
Barry Desker is Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2012/12/21/defusing-tensions-in-the-south-china-sea/#more-32762