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China’s Maritime Intent in South China Sea Vis a Vis ASEAN

Sandeep Anand was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 23, 2009

    South China Sea is a disputed maritime area. This is because of the multiple and often overlapping maritime claims on parts of the Sea by China, many ASEAN countries (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam) and Taiwan. Two incidents in the past one month have brought the issue once again to the forefront. In May, the Chinese permanent mission at the United Nations (UN) presented a note to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon claiming sovereignty over 80 per cent of South China Sea including the disputed islands of Paracel and Spratly. This was done in response to Vietnam’s submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to review the location of the outer limits of the continental shelf. Ma Zhaoxu the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman, reacting to Vietnam’s submission to the UN Commission said “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the adjacent waters including Xisha and Nansha Islands.” He further went on to say that Vietnam’s submission had seriously infringed China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction and that it was illegal and invalid.

    Close on the heels of this development in early June this year, China banned Vietnamese ships from fishing in the waters of South China Sea stating that it was trying to protect maritime resources within its territorial waters.

    These two incidents have come as real shocks to many ASEAN countries which too advance sovereignty claims in the Sea. What is really disturbing about these developments is that these have taken place at a time when China’s relations with ASEAN countries are at a peak in modern history. The initial conflict in South China Sea took place in 1974 when China wrested the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands) from Vietnam. The situation got further vitiated in 1988 when China and Vietnam fought over the issue of Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands). This was the period when China’s relations with ASEAN members in general and with Vietnam in particular were not very cordial. But since the end of the Cold war China’s relations with ASEAN countries, on account of mutual accommodations, have developed much warmth. Since then China has tried to allay the fears of its southern neighbours especially in the security realm through ASEAN driven multilateral mechanisms. This was manifested in China signing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 wherein it committed itself to using peaceful means for the resolution of territorial and jurisdictional disputes. In 2003 it signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) with ASEAN, thereby becoming the first country outside ASEAN to do so.

    Despite having taken these reassuring measures, the Chinese record on security and sovereignty issues are far from satisfactory and does not dovetail with its promises. It still sees these issues in zero sum terms. It is this duplicity in approach that is a major issue of concern for countries having territorial and maritime disputes with it. Not surprisingly, even after committing it to deal with security issues in a peaceful manner with its southern neighbours, China’s position on the South China Sea has hardened over the years.

    China’s changing position on South China Sea can be gleaned from the Chinese maritime discourse. It suggests that China wants supremacy over the waters in East Asia which is closely related to its Energy Security, the question of Taiwan’s independence and the American maritime presence in the region. Supremacy in East Asian waters will further establish its credentials as a great power. To achieve that, it has divided the East Asian waters into two island Chains which are to be controlled one after the other. South China Sea falls under the first island of Chains. China hopes to draw many strategic advantages by controlling the South China Sea. First, the Sea has proven oil and natural gas reserves which would be a boon to its expanding energy requirements. Second, it would provide strategic depth to China in case of any future confrontation with Taiwan. This would also effectively mean that the relative importance of America as a factor in influencing the outcome of such confrontation would get diminished. In China’s calculation, this would be a consistent step en route to becoming a great sea power. Lastly, PLA Navy by their prolonged presence in the South China Sea could effectively patrol the Strait of Malacca through which 80 per cent of its oil passes. This would guarantee smooth and uninterrupted flow of energy and raw materials which are crucial for the growth of the Chinese economy. Owing to all these reasons China’s position has become rigid on the issue.

    This Chinese rigidity has led to heightened tensions and unease among the ASEAN countries with stakes in the South China Sea. An example is the case of Vietnam which recently ordered six Kilo class diesel electric submarines from Russia, thus sending an unmistakable signal to China about the seriousness it accords to this issue. The unintended consequences of these fresh incidents could lead to an arms race in the region which could further complicate regional security. Instead, ASEAN nations should bargain collectively with China on this issue. Perhaps this crisis provides an opportunity for the ASEAN as an organisation to undo the damages done to its reputation on account of the unresolved crisis in Burma and the failed ASEAN summit earlier this year. The time is opportune for them to rise above intra-ASEAN differences and collectively bargain with China to protect the collective interests of ASEAN member states. Unless the ASEAN as a unit adopts a unified stand, China would not hesitate to exploit the differences among ASEAN nations to strengthen its own political and strategic interests. The ASEAN needs to wake up to this challenge.