Beware the South China Sea
Image Credit: US Navy

Beware the South China Sea

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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.

Comments
86
daozi
November 5, 2012 at 11:19

i read some magazine while ago, the testament says that the people who rise power is the mongol not china .it rises power with havoc to some part of the world . at that time it rules china. china cannot do – china has so many enermies
in the north – china has russia & mongol
in the west – china has india and tibet
in the south – china has myamar & vietnam .& philippine
in the east/northeast – china has japan and korea and russia
if all of them attack china at once. what can china do??

[...] Beware the South China Sea [...]

David
August 11, 2012 at 10:17

Because your country is just superpower few decades ago. Now China will use force to invade others when they have experienced to use force to take others; islands. Now they have done exactly as superpower did and will do in the future.Others will joint and resist China furiously. In the world.,we need only superpower. US still controls the world and won't let any other country to take their place as long as they held the deadly weapons in hands

[...] fed on China’s foreign and national security policy. Even on issues as sensitive as Tibet and the South China Sea, there’s some evidence of a growing diversity of thought and greater questioning of the official [...]

Nam
July 13, 2012 at 19:36

What is right is right and the truth is truth, Vietnam has legitimate rights on South China Sea and Vietnam have credibile proof for this. What China is trying to do now is distorting information, fooling and brainwashing their citizen with warlike tone. They want to put extreme nationalism thorough their country, they want to deflect attention from their internal political scandal.
Some pugnacious "scholars" threatened to engage in a war with Vietnam. Probably, they could not forget their failure in the past. They had tried to invade Vietnam for 1000 years and a shameful defeat is what they got. In 1979, they tried to invade Vietnam border with a sneaky and despicable strategy and again they were defeated    and now they think they can win. Oh, it is a beautiful fallacy.

Crimsonleaf
August 8, 2011 at 22:41

Numbers alone do not win a war or even a battle.
Swiss vs HRE, Swedes vs Poles, Mongols vs Chinese, Mongols vs Khwarezm
Afghanistan vs Soviets, and Southern Sudan comes to mind as the most recent.

The underdog is never alone, generally there are advantages to being one and disadvantages. The most important thing is the will to fight.

Frank you do realize that if China ever actually did what you said, it wouldn’t work. Logistics and supplies to feed those 30 million + the disruption from not having Vietnamese rice imports which would collapse since it would be used for their own war effort would create an instant shortage of food in China proper. The price cringe would create so much instability that there would have to be even more troops to “stabilize” their own country.

China is doing a very wise thing, asking for the Moon and then “conciliating” for a much larger pie than would be offered in a actual negotiation. The problem with this is that the ‘appetite’ for getting what you want and not compromising grows stronger and strong, eventually the ideal and perception are very murky. This is where they will make a mistake, the push through a third party instead of getting reasonably more from actual negotiations will create a backlash. Once it starts, the U.S. will propose a unanimous “objective” and once it is agreed to by all parties (except China) it will be enforced. This will effectively strip ability to negotiate piecemeal by the Chinese. Thus far the attempt to make a quick claim, and enforce it tries to force the issue and create acquiescence to the existence of agreement where none exists, this failed and in the future it will unravel unless they get binding agreements at least from some of the parties (They won’t they are bargaining too hard where the counter party has nothing to gain by agreement).

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