Maritime security in the South China Sea is being shaped by two overlapping and potentially crosscutting developments. The first development is the emergence of new tensions between the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal dating from late August. The second development is the initiation of official consultations on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in mid-September.
Ever since the eruption of tensions between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in April 2012 Beijing has pursued “wedge politics” in an attempt to isolate Manila from other ASEAN states. For example, China’s new Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointedly omitted the Philippines from the itinerary of his two trips to the region this year.
In August China and the Philippines became involved in a diplomatic altercation over President Aquino’s attendance at the Tenth China-ASEAN- Expo in Nanning (3-6 September). The Philippines had been designated the “country of honor” and official host for this event. It was past practice for the host country to be represented by its head of government. On 28 August, immediately after President Aquino indicated his intention to attend the Expo China requested that he visit “at a more conducive time.” According to Philippine sources, China demanded the Philippines withdraw its arbitration case as a condition for Aquino’s visit. This was unacceptable and President Aquino declined to attend.
In the midst of these ructions, new tensions in China-Philippine relations erupted when Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on September 3 released three aerial photographs of Scarborough Shoal taken on August 31. These photographs were taken at low tide and showed what the Philippines claimed were thirty concrete blocks, a concrete platform, two vertical posts and a white buoy lying in Scarborough Shoal. Three Chinese Coast Guard ships were also photographed on station in the area.
Gazmin speculated that the concrete blocks “could be a prelude to construction” and were a violation of the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Gazmin also stated he was unsure when the blocks were delivered. Philippine sources speculated that the blocks could be used to tether Chinese fishing vessels. An anonymous Philippine official was quoted as stating, “the concrete pillars and blocks… appeared to have been dropped from an aircraft.”
A day after Gazmin’s testimony, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto del Rosario argued that China had plans to occupy disputed reefs in the South China Sea before the formal conclusion of a COC, and stated that Chinese activity “places the region in jeopardy in terms of peace and stability.” Del Rosario concluded that “we intend to file a diplomatic protest” with China.
On September 4, the Philippines Department of National Defense announced that new aerial photographs taken two days earlier revealed a total of 75 concrete blocks in a two-hectare area of Scarborough Shoal. The blocks were estimated at just over half a meter in length, width and height.
Official Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei responded to Philippine accusations by claiming they were “not in accordance with the facts” and that Scarborough Shoal was China’s “inherent territory.”
On September 10, Philippines Navy Vice Admiral Jose Luis Alano raised the rhetorical stakes by noting that government discussions were underway about how to respond to China, including whether or not to remove the blocks. Speaking at a Foreign Ministry press conference the following day, Hong Lei restated China’s “undisputed sovereignty” over “Huangyan Islands [Scarborough Shoal] and the neighboring sea.”
China released its own photos reportedly taken some time during the second week of September clearly showing rocks and coral jutting from the sea at low tide. Chinese sources claimed this was the same area of Scarborough Shoal depicted in photographs taken by the Philippines Air Force. As a direct result of this controversy the Philippines recalled its ambassador to China for consultations.
Shortly after the formal installation of Xi Jinping as president and Wang Yi as the new foreign minister back in March, China signaled a subtle change in its relations with Southeast Asia. The following month, at the 19th ASEAN-China Senior Officials Consultation, the Chinese side announced its willingness to commence discussions with ASEAN on a COC later in the year.
Two explanations account for China’s demarche. First, Chinese leaders reportedly viewed past policy on the South China Sea as counterproductive. They sought to insulate China-ASEAN relations from territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Second, China faced a more unified ASEAN. In 2013, Brunei assumed the ASEAN Chair and gave priority to initiating discussions with China on a COC. Thailand, as ASEAN’s country coordinator for dialogue relations with China, and Indonesia both began to play more proactive roles.
China responded by dispatching Foreign Minister Wang Yi on two trips to Southeast Asia to sound out his counterparts and to make preparations for the ASEAN-China Summit in October. Wang’s first visit in late April/early May included Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei; during the second visit in August he took in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
At a press conference in early August, Wang Yi was careful to note that China and ASEAN had only “agreed to hold consultations on moving forward the process on the ‘Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC)’ under the framework of implementing the ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)….’” Wang also noted in a pointed reference to the Philippines that, “some parties” held “different ideas…on how to promote the process of COC.”
Significantly, Wang Yi highlighted four reasons for why the COC consultations would be a prolonged process. First, he stated that the expectations of unnamed parties for a “quick fix” were “neither realistic nor serious.” Second, Wang noted that no country or countries could impose their will and that consultations would proceed only on the basis of consensus. Third, he recalled that in the past outside interference had caused China-ASEAN talks on a COC to bog down. Fourth, he cautioned that consultations could only proceed “step-by-step.”
China and ASEAN held their first round of formal consultations on the COC in Suzhou, China from September 14-15. This meeting drew up a work plan on the DOC for 2013-14, approved an expert group to assist in developing the COC, and agreed to meet in Thailand in early 2014. Immediately after the meeting the China Daily reported, “Manila once again tried to disrupt China-ASEAN consultations. Before the Suzhou meetings, the Philippines again started a war of words with China. It fabricated a story that China had laid some concrete blocks on Huangyan Islands…”
Despite this promising start, it is clear that some major procedural differences will have to be overcome. China insists that consultations on the COC can only take place under the framework of the DOC. The 2002 DOC listed five areas for cooperation. Only four joint working groups have been set and so far not one project has been approved or funded. ASEAN prefers that the DOC and COC discussions be separated with each proceeding on its own track. Some in ASEAN argue that the COC should be implemented piecemeal, that is, as soon as agreement is reached on one measure it should be implemented immediately.
The 2002 ASEAN-China DOC calls for the parties “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability” and to refrain from occupying “presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.” The Philippine-China dispute over “blocks or rocks” at Scarborough Shoal is an illustration that positive diplomatic progress on a COC could be set back at any time by any party failing to exercise restraint. This applies equally to the Philippines and China.
Nearly a month has passed since the Philippines first raised allegations about new activities at Scarborough Shoal, yet no further information has been forthcoming. It is incumbent on the Philippines to provide further details to substantiate its accusations that China violated the 2002 DOC by placing concrete blocks in Scarborough Shoal as a prelude to construction.
The Philippines’ allegations raise more questions than answers. Is there any better imagery to determine if the blocks are not rocks, as the Chinese claim? Why hasn’t this imagery been released? When were the blocks placed in Scarborough Shoal? If, as some analysts argue, the blocks form a haphazard pattern, what is the basis for the conclusion that they are foundations for future construction?
China has been disingenuous in its dismissal of claims made by the Philippines. For example, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei responded to a question on this issue by stating, “what the Philippine side said is not true.”
This phrasing makes it unclear whether he was denying that China had placed the blocks there in the first place, or denying accusations that China planned construction activities in Scarborough Shoal, or both.
One regional security analyst, for example, has speculated that the concrete blocks were used as ballast by Chinese fishermen and discarded once they reached the fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoal. If this is the case, dumping concrete blocks would be an environmental not a security matter. China, which has physical control over Scarborough Shoal, should invite the world’s media and marine experts to visit Scarborough Shoal and make their own independent determination.