US-China Perception Gap on the Messy South China Sea Dispute: Assessment of Post-2009 Developments | CHINA US Focus

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US-China Perception Gap on the Messy South China Sea Dispute: Assessment of Post-2009 Developments

Nong Hong
September 22, 2011
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China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea (SCS) in November 2002, laying a political foundation for the discussion of commercial cooperation as well as long-term peace and stability in the region. Though the DOC has been criticized for a number of weaknesses (e.g. neither a binding treaty, nor a formal code of conduct), its signing had helped keep the SCS relatively quiet for several years, at least prior to 2009. Yet, tensions have been on the rise in the past two years. In addition to competing territorial claims from different parties, the United States is now also playing a role that Beijing sees as an effort to re-assert Washington’s role in the regional strategic mix. The race to control the disputed islands by relevant parties is fuelled by the concern of China’s rise, yet Beijing perceives a tightening rope led by Washington in containing its traditional claims in the region.

Troubled Waters in the South China Sea

Since 2009, several major developments have stirred controversy in the SCS and highlighted the difficulties of maintaining stability in the region. These include the Territorial Sea Baseline Bill passed by the Philippines Congress in mid-February 2009, laying claim to Scarborough Shoal (sovereignty claimed by China) and a number of islands in the SCS; a joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam; and a separate submission by Vietnam to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the continental Shelf (CLCS). These extended continental shelf submissions underscore existing disputes that have added an extra dimension to the claims.

The tension in the SCS has continued to escalate this year with a series of events. In May, Vietnam and China accused each other over the “cable cutting” event. In June, Vietnam held live-fire exercises in the SCS amid high tensions with China over disputed waters. Standoffs have also taken place between Chinese and Philippine vessels. In March, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships reportedly ordered a Philippine survey ship away from an area called Reed Bank, followed by the Philippines sending military aircraft to the area. Starting from May, the Philippines Navy has removed foreign marker posts that were placed on reefs and banks, part of the much-disputed Spratly group of islands. The Philippines was renaming the South China Sea as the "West Philippine Sea" as tensions with Beijing mounted over the disputed area.

China’s "Core Interest" vs. US’s "National Interest"

Amid these tensions, the United States increased its presence in the region, resulting in a series of U.S.-Sino spats over the SCS dispute. In March 2010, as first reported by the Japanese and followed by U.S. media, Chinese officials told two visiting senior Obama administration officials that China would not tolerate any interference in the SCS, now part of China’s "core interest" of sovereignty. In July 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement at the 10th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that disputes over the highly sensitive SCS were a "leading diplomatic priority" and "pivotal to regional security."

This backdrop contributed to increasing concern in Beijing where Clinton’s statement was seen as a signal that the United States had changed its neutral position on the SCS dispute to now back other claimant states, particularly Vietnam. In a Sino-U.S. workshop on the SCS in Hawaii 2010, some scholars from think tanks like RAND, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and Center for Naval Analysis argued that Clinton’s remarks may be in response to what many U.S. media reported on China’s statement in March when Beijing defined the SCS as one of its "core interests."

At the same time, the concern of the international community is that the Chinese, for the first time, labelled the SCS a "core interest," on par with its interests in Taiwan and Tibet. Chinese scholars argue that China never publicly declared a "South China Sea = core interest" policy; it came first from Japanese media and was followed by U.S. journalists, serving as the subtext for the "U.S.-defends-freedom-of-navigation-in-the-South-China-Sea" story. Zhu Feng, a Chinese political scientist, clarified that Chinese officials did use the term "core interest," but the original text that "the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea is the core interest of Chinese government," was misinterpreted by the media.

Perception Gaps Continue to Widen

Many Chinese military officers and scholars have challenged Clinton’s call of "freedom of navigation in the sea" being a U.S. "national interest." A high-ranking Chinese military officer argued that freedom of navigation was never a problem in that region. Liu Jiangyong, an Asia-Pacific studies specialist at Beijing's Tsinghua University, said he did not see any sense in people worrying about, or interfering, in matters that did not concern them. Wang Hanling, a specialist in maritime law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that China has never interfered in the normal activities of any ship crossing the SCS or any aircraft flying over it, especially for commercial use: "What the U.S. calls 'national interest' is not freedom of navigation but rather its presence in the Western Pacific, or military superiority and political influence, to be more specific." His comment stands for that of the majority of Chinese scholars.

The contesting U.S. and Chinese views on “freedom of navigation” have resulted in several incidents in the EEZs of the Asia-Pacific region. A confrontation between U.S. Navy survey vessel Bowditch and a Chinese frigate in China’s EEZ occurred in March 2001, followed by the April 2001 collision between a U.S. EP3 surveillance plane and a Chinese jet fighter over China’s EEZ, the most recent "Impeccable Incident." Disagreements between the United States and China, and between coastal states and user states in general, on interpretations of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea provisions generally relate to the exact presumed meaning of terms in the convention, as well as the meaning of specific articles. For example, there are specific differences with regard to the meaning of “freedom” of navigation and over flight in and above the EEZ, i.e., whether such freedoms can be limited by certain regulations — national, regional or international — or whether such freedoms are absolute.

Beijing expressed concern over the United States' increasing engagement in the SCS, adding that it opposes the internationalization of the maritime issue. China holds that the SCS issue is a dispute over sovereignty about territory and maritime rights between the relevant countries, and not an issue between China and the ASEAN, nor a regional or international issue. Some U.S. scholars argue that China's opposition to the "internationalisation" of the SCS issue is tantamount to an attempt to de-internationalise an international sea. They argue that once the South China Sea has been de-internationalised, China can bring its strength to bear on Southeast Asian countries and impose its own rules on these waters, rather than internationally accepted ones from international law.

In a workshop on U.S.-China relations on SCS issues in September 2010, some Chinese scholars tried to clarify the interpretation of the "bilateral approach" which China always insists on in solving conflict with relevant states. China clearly prefers to solve island sovereignty and maritime delimitation matters through direct negotiation with the countries involved. On non-traditional security issues, such as safety and security of sea lanes, anti-piracy, and marine environmental protection, China is more open to multilateral approaches of cooperation. One example is the DOC signed in 2002 and other regional agreements with ASEAN.

Gap bridged with Tension Easing

There are some signs that the SCS tension is starting to ease. In June, representatives of China and Vietnam met in Beijing and agreed to "peacefully" resolve their maritime territorial disputes. On July 21, China and ASEAN adopted the implementing guidelines of the DOC which is considered by China to be significant for China-ASEAN relations. The United States, also welcomed the agreement, praising China and ASEAN for defusing recent tensions.

Whether the guidelines will bridge the US-China gap still remains unclear. Despite the guidelines being applauded as laying a solid foundation for practical cooperation in the area and stepping further towards a code of conduct, there is still debate among the claimant states. The Philippines criticized the guidelines as lacking “teeth”. It seems China has yielded to agreeing to multilateral discussions on the SCS issue. However, under closer scrutiny, China hasn't stepped back from its position on dealing bilaterally with territorial disputes on the SCS-the sovereignty issue was not mentioned in the guidelines; instead they cover functional affairs about cooperation in SCS in areas like marine technological research, rescue, and anti-pirate efforts. While the guidelines will likely help reduce tensions in the region for the time being, the rules fail to address core conflicts between China and the Southeast Asian claimants. This is not what the United States would like to see given its recent gesture of offering to mediate among the claimant states. In addition, the major difference between China and the United States - whether military activities are legitimated - will still hamper their relationship and will no doubt eventually have a great impact on the Asia-Pacific security framework.

When Will China Clarify its Claim?

Among all these debates on "core interest", "freedom of navigation" and "internationalization", the "U-shape line" remains the most controversial and ambiguous issue between China and other claimant states. Beijing has not made any official declaration about the international and national legal values of the discontinuous dotted line. Before the Chinese government defined the U-shaped line’s legal status, Chinese scholars offered different or even contradictory explanations about the dotted line’s legal value at many international conferences. When China clarifies its claim is of great concern for not only other claimant states but for the whole international community. Indeed, it has become a nagging problem for Chinese foreign policy makers.

Though Washington proposes to mediate among the claimant states for resolution of the SCS dispute, Beijing opposes its internalization. It insists on a bilateral approach over sovereignty and maritime delimitation, and an open multilateral approach in some areas such as non-traditional security. The approach of ASEAN as a collective unit to negotiate with China does not apparently have consensus within ASEAN itself, given that apart from the four member states with overlapping claims with China, other ASEAN members may not risk ruining their relations with China. Above all, the most important and urgent agenda in this increasingly messy picture is when and how China will clarify its claim over the SCS.

Nong Hong is Postdoctoral Fellow with China Institute, University of Alberta and Deputy Director, Research Center for Oceans Law and Policy, National Institute for the South China Sea Studies

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