“Flowing Water Rage”: The South China Sea
President-elect Donald Trump told China to keep the US drone which China retrieved which has resulted in another debate on Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, an important geo-political water body and the second busiest sea route in the world, comprising over one-third of world trade. Along with the trade route, the presence of large reserves of oil and natural gas have intensified the conflict. Today, the South China Sea is an international water, and is recognized by the United Nations through the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ratified by all major neighboring countries. The 250 islands, however are subject to competing claims of sovereignty.
Interestingly, that although the South China Sea has remained a zone of conflict, it has never seen militarization to such an extent. The situation has escalated and some experts describe this as “Asia’s biggest and potential cause for an armed conflict.” Many nations, such as Malaysia along with the US (followed by member nations of the ASEAN) argue that without action, the situation will further escalate.
The risk of conflict has escalated in the South China Sea. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines are wrestling over extensive territories over which each nation claims jurisdiction, especially over the rights to exploit natural gas and oil reserves. Another issue is the freedom of navigation, which not only the nations involved in the conflict face, but also nations such as India, Sri Lanka and Seychelles. This conflict is further strengthened by the US Naval rights to operate in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which covers a two-hundred-mile radius.
The tensions are also shaped by Chinese military power with a prior history of regional expansion. China has been substantially modernizing its military equipment and rapidly increasing the strength of its para military forces along with key naval upgrades, to enforce sovereign and jurisdiction rights over the sea. The Pentagon presently feels “threatened” by the potential halting of future US Naval movements in the sea. In the light of recent US-China foreign relations, with respect to the Asia-Pacific, and China’s rising economy, Washington is determined to resolve any dispute in the South China Sea, especially preventing disputes from reaching a level of conflict.
With a “probable” reason for a clash between US Navy and the Chinese, there are three actions that threaten U.S. interests which could prompt Washington to use force. The most probable and highly likely is Chinese interference in the US military operations from the EEZ’s which might result in an armed Chinese response. In the past, Washington has stated, in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that there is no mention for nations to prevent naval military exercises in the EEZ’s without the consent of the state.
However, China continues to assert that conducting military exercises without prior permission from the coastal states violates Chinese domestic law along with international law. China continues to monitor surveillance aircraft from the US military operating in the EEZs in an increasingly aggressive manner, which might lead to incidents like that of the April 2001 collision of a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet near Hainan Island.
The rapid growth of the Chinese submarine fleet has further increased the sensitivity of the conflict, as was the case when a Chinese submarine collided with a U.S. Navy destroyer’s sonar array in June 2009. Since, neither the U.S. reconnaissance aircraft nor the ocean surveillance vehicle were armed, the United States might consider armed escorts in the future. The slightest miscalculation or a weapon misfire might lead to conflict, which could than result in a full scale escalation and a political crisis. The growing US-China mistrust along with strengthened allies will pose difficulties for both Beijing and Washington.
The second probable conflict could involve China’s territorial aggression with the Philippines, particularly in the disputed area of the Reed Bank situated approximately eighty nautical miles from Palawan. Oil ships surveying in and around Reed Bank have been increasingly harassed by the Chinese navy. The conflict might become more complicated since U.K based Forum Energy is planning to drill for gas in the Reed region this year, which could force an aggressive response from the Chinese. Reed Bank is the end of the line for the Philippines, which if crossed might result in a full scale Chinese response. This could force the US to intervene in the conflict because of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. This treaty states that “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
American foreign experts have, however, advised Washington not to take a stand in the South China Sea and White House officials have refused to comment on the status of US response “if” a conflict breaks out. While addressing the press, a Filipino presidential spokesperson stated in press briefings in May-June 2011, that if there were aggression by the Chinese military, the Philippines would expect Washington to come to its aid. Statements following this press briefing have indicated that Washington would come to the aid of Filipino forces if they were attacked by the Chinese in the disputed Spratly Islands.
Rapidly souring relations between President Rodrigo Duterte and Washington, have put a complete halt on US assistance and aid to Filipino ports along with the use of airfields to refuel and service its naval ships and aircrafts. President Duterte’s increasingly “cozy” relations with China have alarmed foreign experts and policy makers in Washington. Of course, Washington’s response might be altered by the new administration.
China’s continuous harassment of Vietnam’s oil drilling companies has resulted in acute criticism. China continues to harass Petro-Vietnam oil survey ships that are surveying for oil and gas reserves in the Vietnam EEZ. Not long ago, Hanoi, lashed out at China for harassing its oil surveying ships in two separate incidents. However, Hanoi did not initiate an armed response, but pledged to continue its efforts in surveying for oil and gas in the region. Rapidly growing Hanoi and Washington relations would further encourage Hanoi to take a firm stand against aggressive Chinese tactics. If the conflict continues to rise, the US will be again find itself between China and Vietnam, which is less likely than the clash between China and Philippines.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have successfully ratified the multilateral risk-reduction and confidence-building measures of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) 2002, but have largely failed to adhere to the principles (resolve territorial disputes through non-violent means) nor have they undertaken any rehabilitation and peacebuilding measures. China and ASEAN continue to advocate “peacebuilding and resolution to conflict through peaceful means in South China Sea.” But actions speak louder than words. ASEAN has largely failed to resolve conflicts through regional dialogues, and peaceful arrangements.
It is important for ASEAN policy makers in the respective nations to instigate a new dialogue mechanism which will help address the issues more effectively and “seriously.” A South China Sea Coast Guard Forum, established a similar concept to the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum, which involves member nations holding discussions on maritime security, piracy and water sharing issues. This could serve as an example of cooperation and the exchange of information. ASEAN could also consider a South China Sea information forum, which would be another progressive step in improving co-operation and coordination among concerned countries. The center could also serve as a mechanism for accountability and keep track of incidents.
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