The Philippines pushed ASEAN to form a united front over the disputed South China Sea Thursday, presenting a plan for turning the sea into ‘a zone of peace, freedom, friendship and cooperation’ – as long as China scales back its claims to maritime sovereignty.
The proposal, made by Vice President Jejomar Binay at a meeting of ASEAN maritime specialists in Manila, would divide the crowded sea into disputed and non-disputed areas, calling for the demilitarization and shared use of the disputed areas pending a solution. China, which has insisted on bilateral negotiations over the disputed areas, would be unlikely to recognize the agreement, but a united stance from ASEAN countries could make China appear more isolated and make it harder to win concessions. However, as Chinese officials like to remind ASEAN, only four of the regional organization’s ten members have claims to disputed territory (Taiwan has also made claims to the disputed area).
The Philippines would gain legitimacy for its territorial claims if ASEAN accepts the agreement in its current form – the South China Morning Post reports that the proposal recognizes only the Spratly and Paracel Islands as disputed areas, counting the Reed Bank, an oil-rich area over which China and the Philippines clashed in March, as an undisputed part of the Philippines. The area lies within the 200-mile economic zone limit of the Philippines, but is claimed by China as part of a historically sovereign maritime region.
If ASEAN manages to unite over the South China Sea, they will to a great extent have China to thank for their agreement. The nations have competing claims to many parts of the area, such as the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by all four ASEAN nations as well as China and Taiwan, but China’s rising power and increasingly aggressive stance toward territorial disputes has pushed other regional players to look for allies. In the last year, China has become involved in armed standoffs with Japan and Vietnam as well as the Philippines, driving a hunt for support among both regional neighbours and major powers. Japan has moved closer to the United States, with support rising for the US military presence there, while Vietnam announced yesterday an oil exploration agreement with India in disputed waters, which will bring Asia’s other giant into the conflict on Vietnam’s side.