July 11, 2016
A Storm over the South China Sea
by Rear Admiral (rtd) K. Thanabalasingham
COMMENT: I have followed closely the developments over the South China Sea (SCS) in the first half of this year and feel that things are not moving in the right direction. For starters, China has strengthened, militarised and fortified its positions in various locations of the SCS and is continuing the process.
Malaysia’s First Rear Admiral K. Thanabalasingham
China’s installation of the HQ-9 surface-to-air missile system and radars in the Paracel Islands and its fortification of positions elsewhere, like in the artificial island it has created from a shoal/reef in the Spratly Islands, have contributed to increased tensions in the region.
The arrivals and departures of Chinese military aircraft from this island have further aggravated the situation. China is also conducting naval exercises and manoeuvres, while last week a Chinese daily stated in an editorial that China must prepare for “military confrontation” in the SCS.
China has conducted exercises with its fishing fleets with a view to robust defence of its vessels to avoid arrest and detention by foreign forces. The six claimant states in the SCS, namely Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all have overlapping claims but very recently a new dispute has arisen between China and Indonesia over Natuna Island’s territorial and EEZ (exclusive economic zone) waters.
A number of incidents have occurred in the island’s waters between Chinese fishing vessels and Indonesian patrol vessels. China’s contentious nine-dash-line claim has soured feelings between China and the Asean claimant states and Indonesia.
The problem with China’s nine-dash-line claim (a U-shaped boundary that loops down from Taiwan as far as Indonesia’s Natuna Islands) is that it completely ignores the legitimate claims of the coastal states under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
China has ratified Unclos, but with certain specific reservations by which it expects exemption from certain decisions or rulings by some authorities. Furthermore, China is claiming 12 nautical-mile territorial waters around its artificial island, which is contrary to Unclos.
US-China bone of contentention
An artificial island has no rights, according to Unclos. This has become a bone of contention between the United States and China. I do not wish to dwell too much on the ongoing spat between super-power rivals in the SCS.
China is very business-minded and it would not be in its interest to restrict or prevent freedom of navigation. However, we now have to wait and see what China does in the future, especially after the Arbitration Court’s ruling.
In June this year, a meeting took place in China between Chinese and the ASEAN Foreign Ministers. At the end of the meeting the ASEAN bloc issued a strongly- worded statement on ASEAN’s concerns over recent developments in the SCS region due to China’s activities.
Within 24 hours ASEAN withdrew the statement, with the explanation that each member nation would issue its own statement. It would be difficult for all 10 ASEAN members to issue a strongly-worded and unified statement on China’s actions in the SCS.
It is easier for the ASEAN claimant states and several others to have a unified and common stand. In the case of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, they have had long-standing economic and trade ties with China, which has invested heavily in these countries. Some of these countries, if not all, would not want to jeopardise their trade and investment links. Hence China still has leverage.
Taiwan’s claim in the SCS is almost identical to China’s. However, Taiwan has taken a different approach by proposing the SCS Peace Initiative, whereby all parties shelve their maritime disputes, abide by Unclos and explore joint development of maritime resources.
Regrettably, I do not see this proposal making any headway without China’s participation and concurrence. The majority of the countries of the world have accepted the One-China policy.
The anticipated ruling by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on July 12 (tomorrow) on the Philippines’ claim against China will no doubt create further tensions, whether the ruling is in Philippines’ favour or not.
China has repeatedly stated that it does not recognise this court’s jurisdiction and will therefore not abide by its decision. A decision in Philippines’ favour could possibly worsen tensions and cause other repercussions. Will the other ASEAN claimant states resort to the same measure as the Philippines? Currently an air of uncertainty prevails over the SCS.
K THANABALASINGAM is Rear Admiral (Rtd) and he was the first Malaysian to take over as Chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN).