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The South China Sea Steams Up

by Elizabeth C. Economy
June 27, 2011

Protesters march with banners and placards during an anti-China demonstration on a street in Hanoi on June 19, 2011. Several dozen Vietnamese protested in front of the Chinese embassy and marched through Hanoi for the third Sunday running after Beijing sent one of its biggest maritime patrol ships into the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Protesters march with banners and placards during an anti-China demonstration on a street in Hanoi June 19, 2011. Several dozen Vietnamese protested in front of the Chinese embassy and marched through Hanoi for the third Sunday running after Beijing sent one of its biggest maritime patrol ships into the disputed waters of the South China Sea. (John Ruwitch/Courtesy Reuters)

It is summertime, and everyone is out sailing on the South China Sea. Unfortunately, the waters have gotten a bit choppy.  The Philippines and Vietnam, in particular, are riled up over China’s most recent demonstrations of assertiveness: Chinese vessels have reportedly been busy intruding into Philippine waters and cutting the cables of two boats under the flag of PetroVietnam. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have called for assistance from the international community to help rein China in.

At stake, of course, are the potentially vast oil and natural gas resources that many believe the South China Sea possesses. For decades, six claimants—Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, and Brunei—have bickered and skirmished over who is entitled to what. Ancient claims of sovereignty run up against the Law of the Sea and Exclusive Economic Zones. Rhetorical and actual skirmishes have become a way of life. Indeed the situation has been far more dangerous in the past with live fire exchanged and fishermen or sailors killed.

What’s different now, however, is the context in which these conflicts are playing out. And this matters – a lot. As its naval capacity has increased, China has made clear its intent to expand its range of activity throughout the region. Having formally shifted policy from a “near seas” to a” far coastal” defense, China has in effect declared itself a regional and emerging global naval power.  In mid-June, it sent a 3,000 ton Haixun-31 ship through the South China Sea to “monitor shipping, carry out surveying, inspect oil wells and protect maritime security.” In response to China’s increasing activism, regional nations have invited the United States to enter directly into the fray.  The U.S. is formally obligated to defend or provide for the defense of the Philippines and Taiwan; and military relations with Vietnam have been expanding rapidly. The Chinese have been quick to denounce any interference by the United States; however, the United States shows little inclination to listen, consulting with the parties, and clearly asserting U.S. national interest in freedom of navigation and respect for international law.  Even the U.S. Congress has gotten in to the game, recently pushing a resolution that registers Congressional disapproval for China’s actions in the South China Sea.

So what is the answer?  Ideally, of course, all the claimants sit down and honor the 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” accord. This would mean moving forward with discussions and negotiations on how to work together to develop the resources of the South China Sea. (Of course, this was supposed to happen with China and Japan in the East China Sea, as well.) Less ideally, the United States becomes a more permanent player in the ongoing fracas—as it has in the Mekong River dispute—acting as a counterweight to China in support of the smaller Southeast Asian countries’ interests. The U.S. could also use the ASEAN Regional Forum, its bilateral relations with the other claimants, and perhaps even its new seat at the East Asian Summit to bring pressure to bear on China to sit down with everyone else and discuss the challenge at hand. At this point, however, only one thing seems certain, anyone out there sailing on the South China Sea should get ready for a rough ride.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Lloyd Cata

    // “So what is the answer?” //

    If ASEAN does not get tough, and that means ‘trade’ tough, China will continue its economic bully tactics.

    It may seem a small thing, but “longshoremen” refusing to load or unload Chinese ships will do more to Chinese ‘thinking’ than military countermeasures. Soft Power!

    Another is China’s “endgame”, which is reunification with Tiawan; the “Last Step in the Great March”. The ‘provocations’ are in fact a guage of how successful the military and economic pressure for such reunification is working.

    And that folks is why China courts Europe, Africa, and Latin America. The Americans are really not a problem, since ‘anything’ in America can be bought for the right price…and that is why Tiawan has been successfully marginalized by the US and the UN.

  • Posted by John Hildebrand

    China has never (with some very minor exceptions) deployed its forces in aggression overseas. It never needed to. Now, with it’s drive for resources and nationalistic rises, could China begin to push into this new theater of operations for the PLA? The answer depends on who is in power and when and what you believe is the natural course of action for a country.

  • Posted by John Chen

    If you understand Chinese history, you will see its aggression and continuing threats to its neighbors. The statement “China has never deployed its forces in aggression overseas” is completely ignorant of Chinese history.

  • Posted by Don

    Interesting to see US senate and US media suddenly hyped up this issue just after Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo met with Vietnamese special envoy yesterday and reached an agreement, which on the contrary, got minimal coverage and not mentioned in this article. Yeah, anything positive about foreign countries, like peace and developments, should not be reported on US media, Journalism 101, I know.
    I guess your politicians and journalists must pray very hard everyday that other countries got into wars or conflicts for your militarist and imperialist interests. “God bless America” literally means “God, please screw up others”.

  • Posted by Gil

    Is this the case?

    “The U.S. is formally obligated to defend or provide for the defense of…Taiwan”

  • Posted by Loren Fauchier

    China is acting like a regional hegemonic power. As its economic power increases it will continue to increase its military, seek resources, and establish its control further away. Old hegemonic powers used force without international laws aimed to prevent conflict. China will be somewhat constrained by international law and world opinion but not prevented from expanding. So the U.S. must stay engaged militarily and diplomatically to seek peaceful solutions where possible and use its military when necessary. Despite what China says, its behavior confirms hegemonic-type expansion.

  • Posted by Elizabeth Economy

    To Don,
    In fact, Ed Wong had a piece in the NYT on June 27 concerning the meeting between the Vietnamese and Chinese officials. The reason that there is not more made of such meetings–and why I didn’t make a lot of it–is that they often don’t translate into real change. Similar discussions between China and Vietnam announced back in January were supposed to smooth the waters–obviously they didn’t.
    To Gil,
    The Taiwan Relations Act commits the United States to “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan”; and to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

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