Features | Security | Southeast Asia

The South China Seasickness

As China, the Philippines and Vietnam argue over the South China Sea the waters are being over fished and polluted. And conflict could be around the corner.

Many citizens of China, the Philippines and Vietnam won’t have heard of the tiny scraps of land in the South China Sea that their governments compete with one another to claim. Certainly, almost none will ever set eyes on them.

So are places like Scarborough Shoal, the scene of Beijing and Manila’s latest maritime spat this month, really worth all the aggravation? And whose fault is it that these confrontations, which have the potential to start wars – and at the very least to kill fishermen and sailors – keep on happening?

Tiny, uninhabitable islets like Scarborough Shoal have little value per se, but the resources that surround them have plenty. The islets serve as pins in a map, around which governments can draw dotted lines and claim ownership over everything that lies within.

It’s these resources – the food even more, perhaps, than the oil or gas – that make stability in the South China Sea matter.

“The urgency is that these areas are being overfished and polluted, and that’s threatening the food supply of millions of people,” says Carlyle Thayer, an Emeritus Professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy who closely follows disputes in the South China Sea. “That’s something these countries have to start taking seriously.”

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Fishing grounds can, of course, be shared, just as undersea energy reserves can be co-developed. But as Thayer points out, marine environments must be managed, as well as shared. If there’s a perception that fishermen from other countries are abusing resources in disputed waters and endangering livelihoods and food supplies, then that will inevitably trigger an angry response from the other claimants.

So putting an end to the South China Sea disputes is important from a security perspective. But it’s also important from a food security perspective. As things stand, the South China risks a textbook “tragedy of the commons,” the destruction of common resources over which no single authority has control.

In addition, Thayer points out that oil licenses will be granted in the near future, potentially causing further upset. And all this comes as most of the interested parties are investing in their navies and, in China’s case, in paramilitary maritime agencies. “The South China Sea bathtub is being filled up more and more by Chinese control vessels, and by other countries’ patrol vessels and submarines,” he says.

This approaching spike in contestation makes it all the more important that a solution be found now, and the diplomatic activity of the past year suggests that one is attainable. ASEAN has been China’s main interlocutor on South China Sea issues, and Beijing made an important goodwill gesture last November when it put up $475 million to create a China-ASEAN Maritime Co-operation Fund. Several ASEAN-China expert working groups are also now in place.

The key process of 2012 is the drafting of a Code of Conduct (COC) governing behavior in the South China Sea – and envisaged as being more far-reaching than the existing Declaration of Conduct (DOC). Crucially, ASEAN is writing the new code. The association is due to present China with its proposals in July, and Beijing will be under political pressure to accept the ASEAN formula, rather than appear domineering by rejecting the plan. The existing process also excludes the United States, which is to China’s liking. Furthermore, “China has Cambodia in the box seat at the moment [as ASEAN chair],” adds Thayer.

If the idea of giving ASEAN ownership of the drafting process was to produce a robust agreement, then it doesn’t appear to be working out that way. Whether China is deliberately undermining the drafting process, or whether some ASEAN members are simply too timid to risk crossing Beijing by making the new rules too tough, the COC is in danger of falling short.

“The issue is that [the countries involved] say, ‘Let’s agree not to interfere when it’s someone else’s waters, but we don’t know who owns what’,” observes Thayer. “You need to have either EEZs or co-operative zones, but we aren’t seeing co-operation in these areas.”

The Philippines has attempted to address this point, with President Benigno Aquino promoting the concept of the South China Sea as a “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation.”

“What is ours is ours, and with what is disputed, we can work towards joint cooperation,” Aquino suggested. In the Philippine conception of the COC, sovereignty issues would therefore be set aside, and rules of the road laid out to establish a modus vivendi in the South China Sea’s grey areas.

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Would China agree to go along with such an arrangement?

Beijing’s resolve may not even be tested, with other ASEAN members highly equivocal about setting a precedent that grants special status to disputed territories. In other words, they are unable to set sovereignty aside in these few specific areas, even in the interests of maintaining regional stability.

China has its own issues to attend to, the most pressing being the tangle of paramilitary naval agencies – of which China has at least five – that currently police the South China Sea. “This incident [at Scarborough Shoal] raises the question of whether China is a unitary actor,” says Thayer, with reference to the unprecedented response of the China Maritime Surveillance agency, which dispatched two vessels to the Shoal, thus beginning the stand-off with the Philippine Navy’s flagship. “Clearly, there are independent actors trying to do their own thing,” he says. Senior People’s Liberation Army figures have already publicly discussed the need to stand up a national coast guard to bring all these different maritime actors into line. Beijing should press ahead with this structural reform if it wants to take firm control over South China Sea policy.

Keeping fishermen out of sensitive waters is also important – though difficult to enforce, both practically and politically. “Fishermen go where the fish are,” Thayer says. “And can China politically rein in the fishermen and stop them going to places that textbooks say are Chinese islands?”

The best incentive that China could have for taking its maritime agencies and fishing fleets in hand would be the inception of a robust COC. The onus for this is on ASEAN. It’s worth remembering that ASEAN is in theory moving towards the implementation of a new ASEAN Political-Security Community in 2015, by which time ASEAN is supposed to speak with one voice on security issues. If the ASEAN members can resolve to speak with one voice on the South China Sea, then China-ASEAN confrontations, far from becoming more frequent and more dangerous, should grow rarer and easier to manage.

If ASEAN fails in its duty to draft a meaningful code, then it’s naïve to think that Chinese and Vietnamese and Philippine ships will continue to face off peaceably in the South China Sea’s anarchic waters. “They aren’t just going to keep meeting each other eye to eye and then walk away,” concludes Thayer. “At some point there has to be friction or violence.”