First it was the ministers at this week’s ASEAN summit in Cambodia, failing to hammer out a joint statement (a first), or a code of conduct—both supposedly over disputes in the South China Sea. But then today it was reported that a Chinese Naval Frigate ran aground in the disputed area, ratcheting tensions higher.
Given the disputes in the area and China's positions on those disputes, the presence of a naval vessel may itself be provocative. The Sydney Morning Herald reports: “The stranded People's Liberation Army Navy boat, believed to be No 560, a Jianghu class frigate, has in the past been involved in aggressively discouraging Filipino fishing boats from the area.”
China’s Embassy in the Philippines issued a statement on its website:
“Some local media friends asked the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines to confirm the news of a grounded Chinese Navy vessel at Half Moon Shoal in Nansha Islands. According to the information we got from the Information Department of the Ministry of National Defense of China, around 7pm of July 11, a frigate of Chinese Navy ran aground accidentally at Half Moon Shoal of Nansha Isands during a routine patrol mission, with no personnel injured. Currently the rescue work by the Chinese Navy is underway.”
Half Moon Shoal, known in the Philippines as Hasahasa Shoal, is located just 65 nautical miles west from the island-municipality of Balabac in Palawan.
As The Diplomat and its contributors have reported, China’s claims in the area have been pursued through specifically non-military vessels. Trefor Moss notes in a recent piece that “Beijing has an intermediate option – an increasingly impressive array of not-so-hard power tools in the form of the country’s numerous civilian or paramilitary maritime law enforcement agencies.”
Diplomat contributor James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara noted in a piece for the National Interest that “it makes eminently good sense for China to dispatch lightly armed—or even unarmed—noncombat vessels to uphold its territorial claims in the South China Sea. That's what happened at Scarborough Shoal, where no Chinese warships got involved.”
And on the joint statement affair, The New York Times noted:
“A last-ditch effort to reach agreement on a watered-down communique failed Saturday morning after Cambodia, backed by China, refused to agree, the senior diplomat said. The foreign ministers of Indonesia and Singapore tried to persuade the Cambodian foreign minister, Hor Nam Hong, to go along with a compromise, the diplomat said. But the Cambodian declined, saying it was a 'matter of principle' for the association not to take sides in bilateral disputes.”
Many are placing blame on Cambodia, which holds this year’s chair of the organization. The Times quotes a diplomat at the talks stating, “China bought the chair, simple as that.” The diplomat pointed to a recent piece on China’s state news agency, Xinhua, in which the country’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, is quoted acknowledging Cambodia’s prime minister for supporting China’s “core interests.” “Yang Jiechi expressed appreciation for the active efforts of Cambodia as the ASEAN Chair for the success of the meetings,” it reports.
It was too much for Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, who spoke up at a Friday news conference: “Cambodia has taken a position of principle… Here at the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers, we are not a tribunal to adjudicate who is right, who is wrong.”
Also at this week’s summit, there were hopes that a code of conduct could be established to bring a measure of order to recent troubles in the South China Sea. The Christian Science Monitor reports “(the code) would be the 10th, covering essentially the same territorial dispute since the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The idea is that it would spell out what ships should do to avoid a clash but it wouldn't actually spell out how to resolve competing claims.”