When I was a student in the Naval Officer Candidate School, learning to drive ships, I was taught about the hazards of the South China Sea, where our instructors told us to stay away from those dangerous islands and shoals. Today, it’s one of the most heavily trafficked waterways in the world. The islands and shoals are still there, but now more heavily contested amid territorial and maritime disputes. The watchword for the United States more than ever should be ‘caution, dangerous waters!’
This is a timely warning because the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is about to hold its annual foreign ministers’ meeting in Bali. The previous meeting in Hanoi last July sent shockwaves through the region when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared US support for ‘a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion,’ implying that Beijing departed from the Declaration of Conduct for the South China Sea (DOC) of 2002 and further suggesting that Beijing was muscling its outlandish territorial claims individually against the three other major claimant states in the area, in violation of the DOC. Clinton offered her ‘good offices’ to provide a forum for dealing collectively with issues among the claimants.
China reacted badly at first to Clinton’s engagement on the South China Sea and in some of the finer details—such as not giving Beijing prior warning—her intervention might have been handled more diplomatically. But in the end, it was timely and effective. She got Beijing’s attention and the support of most of the region for a common effort to resist China’s efforts to exploit the weaknesses of smaller counterparts through one-on-one confrontation.
Beijing hasn’t yet given up on its one-on-one approach, but it is encountering more unified resistance and adjusting its tactics. The history of the territorial claims issues in the South China Sea is long and extremely complicated. They involve overlapping tensions about control of islets and shoals, rights to territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and access to their fishing and mineral resources. There are also disputes about the meaning of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is itself supposed to provide rules for the settlement of disputes about the control and use of the area.
China is caught between two forces. One is the political need to stick to broad and individually questionable claims for the islands and their adjacent waters based on history, formerly represented by Beijing’s nine-dashed line surrounding the islands of the sea and implying sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea. The other is the attractiveness of relying on existing international law and making narrower UNCLOS-based claims that stand a better chance of being respected, a path toward which Beijing seems to be moving. In today’s newly strong China, buoyed by nationalism, careers will not be advanced by denying plainly and publicly the legitimacy of the nine-dashed line inherited from the last days of the Kuomintang government in 1947. Outsiders’ calls for the Chinese to clarify the situation can be viewed by some in China as offering a choice of suicide or war. But when China has had to meet UNCLOS deadlines to file partial claims, it has mostly played cautiously by the rules of UNCLOS, as it interprets them, or sought to avoid confronting them.
For their part, the other major disputants (Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia) came to their legal claims fairly late in the game, mostly after soundings suggested in the 1970s that hydrocarbons may be present in commercially valuable quantities. But these are also complicated by colonial legacies and concessions, and patterns of customary use by fishermen and sailors over the centuries. Even a non-claimant, Singapore, was drawn into the diplomatic tussle when China sent a naval vessel through the South China Sea to Singapore last month and attempted to suggest the city state was legitimating China’s claims. Singapore’s foreign ministry spokesman was compelled to denounce the manoeuvre and call for China to clarify its oversized claims.