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Simmering South China Sea Dispute

Dr. Srikanth Kondapalli was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 18, 2006

    On December 29, 2005, the Vietnamese foreign ministry accused Taiwan of being involved in the construction of a runway in the biggest of all of the islands, Itu Aba, in the disputed South China Sea. Also known as Taipingdao in Chinese, Ba Binh in Vietnamese and Ligaw in Filipino, it is strategically located in the region. Cumulatively, the South China Sea islands, covering about 200 islands and 800,000 square kilometres, are a bone of contention between Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

    Vietnam accused Taiwan that its actions constitute "a severe violation of Vietnam's sovereignty, exerting negative impact on peace, stability and the trend of increasing cooperation in the region, countering the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct" between the ASEAN countries and China. However, Taiwan is not a signatory to the ASEAN-China declaration of 2002 on the South China Sea, although it has identical views with China on the dispute as a whole. While the contracting parties to the Declaration avoided the inclusion of Taiwan because of Chinese sensitivities and also due to their own varying "one China" policies, the incident could also be construed as a chance for Taiwan to test political waters in South China Sea.

    This incident comes as a surprise since both Taiwan and Vietnam have shown some flexibility in their relations of late. Taiwan, for instance, has launched the "Go South" policy of gradually shifting economic investments from the China market towards the ASEAN countries, given political and military tensions with China. Several thousands of Vietnamese, Filipinos, Thais and others work in Taiwan and are increasingly intermarrying into Taiwanese society, although visa related issues are increasingly threatening Taiwan-ASEAN relations.

    Nevertheless, internally, Taiwan is politically divided on how to tackle the incident as the Legislative Yuan is currently debating on the runway issue. With high level political leaders' visits to China, including that of opposition leaders Lien Chen and James Soong, further political divisions between the political parties is expected in Taiwan on this issue. Reportedly, the pro-unification parties like the Kuomintang are opposed to the construction of the runway, while the Taiwan identity parties like the ruling Democratic Progressive Party wish to chart a fresh course. Indeed, it was reported that President Chen Shui-bian wanted to visit Itu Aba some time ago. He had visited offshore islands like Penghu in 2004.

    In November 1946, the Nationalist Kuomintang government in China erected sovereignty marks on Itu Aba after sending naval ships to the region. Subsequently, a Republic of China Army Garrison with about 400 soldiers came into being and under the control of Taiwan from 1956. The garrison looked after the maintenance and military installations of the island. In 2000, the Taiwanese Coast Guard, with 200 personnel, took over the island from the Taiwanese Army. It has plans to build the runway to reportedly accommodate transports like the C-130. The main objectives of the Coast Guard appear to be to conduct effective search and rescue operations and for oceanic environmental protection, although the Taiwanese deputy defence minister suggested on January 5, 2006 that it is for "strategic purpose". While an estimated one-third of the more than one kilometre of the runway is reportedly complete, it would be difficult to imagine whether fighter aircraft can land on the 1.3 kilometre long island. That means the Taiwanese air force will be unable to launch any long-range aviation activities in the region, which is made further difficult by the fact that it lacks any credible midair-refuelling facilities or assets.

    For Vietnam, while its relations with China are normalising, the South China dispute is still a challenging proposition. After the 1974 Chinese occupation of some islands in the Paracels portion of the South China Sea, Vietnam's relations with China deteriorated, leading to the 1979 border clashes. Vietnam appears to be caught between the "concessions" it made to China on the Taiwan issue and the South China Sea dispute, in addition to the overall role of China in the region. Vietnam has by and large followed a pro-China policy on the Taiwan issue. On May 19, 2004, for instance, Vietnam stated that it "completely supports China's policy on the Taiwan issue" and reunification efforts. In the backdrop of the anti-secession law passed by the Chinese National People's Congress, Vietnam declared on March 16, 2005 that it "persistently pursue[d] the "one-China policy. Taiwan is a part of China. Vietnam protests Taiwan's activities for independence". However, Vietnam has maintained that it is inclined to support peaceful efforts in resolving the Straits issue.

    On the dispute itself, Vietnam and others have concluded several bilateral and multilateral agreements. At the bilateral level, Vietnam and China have signed the Agreement on Delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf, the Vietnam-China Fishery Cooperation Agreement and several political agreements by visiting high-level leaders of the two countries. At the multilateral level, as the disputants to the South China Sea are about six, several arrangements and agreements have been made, including conforming to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. On March 14, 2005, Vietnam, the Philippines and China signed a further agreement at Manila for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking in the Agreement Area in the South China Sea by Vietnam's Oil and Gas Corporation, the Philippine's National Oil Company and China's National Offshore Oil Corporation.

    However, despite these agreements, in actual practice, there have been several incidents in the area that have threatened to derail relations between China and others in the region, specifically with Vietnam and the Philippines. Given the potential energy resources in the region, drilling contracts and disputes have come to the fore. Vietnam protested the presence of the Chinese oil-drilling platform Kantan 3, which was hauled by Nanhai No. 215 vessel from Shanghai into the exclusive economic zone close to Vietnam between November 19 and December 31, 2004. On January 8, 2005, the Chinese naval patrol police shot dead or captured several Vietnamese fishermen in the western side of the Gulf of Tonkin. The Filipino Navy, likewise, frequently complains about Chinese naval intrusions and build-up in the region.

    For China, its carefully crafted, but non-binding, declaration of 2002 is coming under closer scrutiny even as its efforts to isolate Taiwan among ASEAN countries may be limited with the current developments about Itu Aba. While Vietnam and the Philippines preferred a binding Code of Conduct for disputants in South China Sea, China has succeeded, through its "friends" in ASEAN, to settle for a flexible declaration. However, unilateral Chinese oil drilling activities and naval build-up question its "responsible" rise in the region.

    Simmering discontent in the region on the South China Sea dispute should concern India as the region straddles its burgeoning trade and investment destinations, increasing interactions with several countries and energy and merchandise flows. Motivated by these considerations, the Indian Navy has conducted operations in the region with friendly countries and has helped enhance security of the sea lines of communications, although it has not sided with any of the disputants in the region.