By Ralph Jennings CONTRIBUTOR
Leaders from 10 Southeast Asian countries are talking this week, possibly about peaceful use of the heavily disputed South China Sea. Four have claims to the resource-rich tract of water and China says nearly the whole 3.5 million-square-km body of water belongs under its flag instead. Discussion about the South China Sea now and throughout the year among the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) leaders may spawn a framework code of conduct by June, to be refined later in the year or from 2018. The code of conduct – broadly a set of rules aimed at heading off mishaps in disputed waters – has eluded Asia since parties signed an initial Declaration of Conduct in 2002 to kick off negotiations a full-on code.
Once the deal happens, Vietnam will be the biggest loser.
The ASEAN member with an extra hefty South China Sea claim will want a code of conduct or whatever it is to cover the Paracel Islands. But China has controlled those 130 features southwest of Hong Kong since a brief battle in 1974 with what was then South Vietnam. Modern Vietnam still claims what it lost.
But China is unlikely to let Vietnam or anyone else pass ships near the Paracels for any reason without incident, meaning it would oppose any regional code of conduct that implies another country can access its reefs, atolls and surrounding tropical waters. China has already held up the code for the past six years over fears it would compromise Chinese control over the sea.
Vietnam and three other Southeast Asian countries have stakes in another South China Sea archipelago, the Spratly Islands, which they effectively share with China. They’re all looking for gas or oil under the sea, which is otherwise coveted mainly for fisheries. If China doesn’t want a safe driving agreement in the Spratly chain, it’s as much at risk of mishap as any other player.
“No one can force China out of the Paracels,” says Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia. “The most you could hope for is if Vietnam took arbitral action,” such as a petition with the world court in The Hague, he adds.
Vietnam happens to be trying to get along better with China on its own despite centuries of land and sea disputes. Anti-Chinese sentiment still runs high among Vietnamese people, but the government in Hanoi is talking with Beijing outside the ASEAN context about the maritime issue while enjoying economic benefits such as cheap imports and a flood of Chinese tourists. China may eventually face pressure from the U.S. government over its past decade of maritime expansion, including artificial islands ready for combat aircraft and radar systems. For now it can pacify otherwise restive Southeast Asian claimants one-on-one by offering aid and investment. The other claimants are Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Vietnam’s ASEAN colleagues, which are meeting for four days in the Philippines through Saturday, probably won’t push China over the Paracels even if Vietnam tries to. ASEAN counts staunchly pro-China Cambodia and Laos among its members. This year’s chair, the Philippines, has set aside its maritime disputes with China, too. ASEAN as a whole usually pursues deals that elevate its unity rather than risking rifts among them or with other countries.
Lack of a Paracels clause in an eventual code of conduct will give China more sway over those islets where it has already built a small city plus military infrastructure.
“I don’t think China will want to have that in the code of conduct, because I think for China the Paracels is a bilateral issue between itself and Vietnam, and I would even go further to say some of the ASEAN states may not want to be part of it because they would see the Paracels as an unnecessary complicating factor,” said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.