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The South China Sea Steams Up

Jul 01 , 2011

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.

Elizabeth C. Economy is  C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy, and U.S.-China relations.

Source: Reprinted with permission.

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