War clouds hanging over the South China Sea

By Veeramalla Anjaiah
The Jakarta Post

Is war over the festering South China Sea (SCS) maritime dispute between China and the Southeast Asian claimants of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam inevitable in 2015?

China’s rising assertiveness, the firmness of claimants like the Philippines and Vietnam and the big powers’ interest in the region, have led to fears that tensions might escalate into armed conflict between the contumacious China and one or two claimant countries in 2015, said a top US think-tank in a survey recently.The Washington-based Center for Preventive Action (CPA), a research wing of the Council on Foreign Relations, rated the SCS as one of top 10 potential conflicts in its Preventive Priorities Survey 2015.

According to the survey, the other nine potential conflicts are Iraq, a large-scale terrorist attack on the US or an ally, North Korea, Israel’s attacks on Iran, the Syrian civil war, Afghanistan, Ukraine, cyber-attacks and Israeli-Palestinian tensions. “One high-priority contingency — an armed confrontation in the South China Sea — was upgraded in likelihood from low to moderate this year,” the CPA said.

Throughout 2014, China, which has shown no signs of agreeing to a code of conduct (CoC), tried to continue its unilateral actions, known as “salami slicing” in the SCS, and appease ASEAN countries through trade, investments and loans. But Chinese actions created more concerns than ever.

Like a drop of poison, the SCS has disrupted good relations between China and ASEAN claimant countries, as well as Indonesia. Though it is officially not a claimant country, Indonesia feels threatened by China’s controversial “nine-dash line”, especially after Beijing submitted a map to the UN in 2009, published on new Chinese passports in 2012, which encroaches into a part of Indonesia’s Natuna maritime area in Riau province.

The U-shaped nine-dash demarcation line is being used by Beijing to claim 80 percent of 3.5 million square kilometers of the SCS area. China’s claim was fiercely contested by countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

But China made it clear that its territorial claims were based on abundant historical and legal evidence. Beijing says it has “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands in the SCS and its adjacent waters and enjoys “sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.

But China has failed to provide the evidence and the geographic coordinates of those dashes, despite repeated requests from Indonesia and other ASEAN countries.

China did not even clarify basic matters, like whether it claimed sovereignty over all the sea’s waters and resources or just its land features.“It [China] prefers strategic ambiguity combined with threatening rhetoric and military coercion,” The Wall Street Journal said in an editorial recently.

Agreeing to China’s historical claims, which are based on fishing activities, naval expeditions and maritime trade in the past, would mean acknowledging the prevalent ships from the ancient Javanese and Sumatran kingdoms, according to a new book, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, on the dispute by BBC journalist Bill Hayton.

The kingdoms’ ships operated in the SCS along with Arab and Indian ships for more than 1,000 years. Based on history, Indonesia should also be able to claim a certain part of the SCS.The deployment of a giant oil rig in the waters near the Parcel Islands, well within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), by China earlier this year, was a dangerous and provocative move by Beijing.

After a big hue and cry from the international community and media, and violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, China unilaterally removed the rig much earlier than planned.Currently, the major bone of contention is that China increasingly talks about its historic rights while ASEAN claimants refer to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The most significant development last year was moving the battleground from the conference rooms in ASEAN countries and China to The Hague. As part of its “lawfare strategy” the Philippines filed a case in February 2013 against China’s claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague.

In a rare move on Dec. 7, Beijing released its position paper on the SCS dispute in which it claimed that the arbitration had no jurisdiction because the dispute was over territorial sovereignty.

But Manila is seeking confirmation of its fishing and other rights within its EEZ in accordance with the 1982 UNCLOS. Vietnam also joined the fray by submitting its position to the PCA in connection with the arbitration initiated by Manila. Given the war clouds hanging over the SCS issue, perhaps the best option available for ASEAN claimant countries is to pursue arbitration, an act that can reduce tensions.

Among the co-founders of ASEAN, Indonesia, Malaysia —which holds the current chair of the association — and Singapore, the regional coordinator for China, have a huge responsibility to unite ASEAN and maintain peace and stability in the region, working for the early conclusion of the CoC.

Nobody is certain if there will be a war over the SCS dispute in 2015, but the legal battle will continue in The Hague.

China increasingly talks about its historic rights while ASEAN claimants refer to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.



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One Response to “War clouds hanging over the South China Sea”

  1. freeuniverseity Says:

    Reblogged this on Free UniversE-ity.

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