South China Sea: The New Battleground

By Shar Adams On October 3, 2011 @ 6:33 pm In Asia Pacific | No Comments

A Vietnamese fishing boat sails near an American warship in Da Nang earlier this year. Planned naval exchange activities between US and Vietnamese navies were taking place amid high tensions over conflicting claims in the South China Sea. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images )

A Vietnamese fishing boat sails near an American warship in Da Nang earlier this year. Planned naval exchange activities between US and Vietnamese navies were taking place amid high tensions over conflicting claims in the South China Sea. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images )

Earlier this year, unprecedented protests were held in Vietnam, a Communist regime that notoriously stamps out any form of dissent. The demonstrations were about China’s aggressive antics in the South China Sea.

China is claiming an exclusive economic zone covering more than half the area and has recently come into conflict with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Dr Cuong Trong Bui, president of the Queensland chapter of the Vietnamese Community in Australia, is concerned that China is “bullying” countries over the South China Sea.

“Vietnam lodged a protest when Chinese vessels on 26th of May damaged cables and equipment within Vietnam’s 370km exclusive maritime zone,” he told The Epoch Times.

“The Vietnamese Government said a similar incident again took place on 9th of June, blaming China for violating its sovereignty,” he said.

Dr Bui, a former Vietnamese refugee and now an advisor to the Queensland Government on multicultural affairs, says he is suspicious of the Vietnamese regime for allowing the recent protests.

Public protests are rare in Vietnam today, particularly against China, a communist ally. The demonstrations have the appearance of sovereignty concerns in order to appease Vietnamese people, he says.

“They [Vietnam and China] are playing games,” he said. “One day, they pretend they are fighting and another day, it is ok.”

Former refugee and now an Australia citizen Dr Cuong Trong Bui is concerned about Chinese bullying tactics in the South China Sea. (Shar Adams/The Epoch Times)

Former refugee and now an Australia citizen Dr Cuong Trong Bui is concerned about Chinese bullying tactics in the South China Sea. (Shar Adams/The Epoch Times)

Demonstrations on the issue by Vietnamese communities around the world have since been held, including in Australia.

“We have to warn people about China [and] speak up for the people living in Vietnam. They don’t have the opportunity to say as much as we can here and that is the problem,” Dr Bui said.

South China Sea

Vietnamese people are not the only ones with concerns about the South China Sea. The area is fraught with old territorial disputes and with developing economic strength in the region, the stakes are becoming higher.

Robert Kaplan, author, journalist and a member of the US Defence Department’s Defence Policy Board, believes the South China Sea is shaping up to be the forum for a new era of conflict for the 21st century.

“Europe is a landscape, East Asia a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the 20th and 21st centuries,” he wrote in the online forum Foreign Policy.

The South China Sea stretches thousands of kilometres from the Straits of Malacca in the south-west to the Straits of Taiwan in the north-east.

Territorial claimants include Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, Brunei, Singapore Vietnam, Indonesia and China, who all vie for different sectors of the straits.

Disputed areas include the Macclesfield Bank claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines; the Paracel Islands, with claims from China, Vietnam and Taiwan; and the most southerly group of larger islands, the Spratly Islands, claimed in full by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

In 1988, more than 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed by Chinese military in territorial disputes off the Spratly Islands.

Although variously named according to which country is claiming it, the waterway is more broadly known as the South China Sea as a result of 16h century European interest in it as a trade route to the riches of China.

Strategic Significance

Today, the South China Sea’s strategic and economic significance is staggering.

Accounting for 2-way trade, it is presently the busiest seaway in the world, linking north-east Asia to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf through the Straits of Malacca.

A third of all maritime traffic and “more than half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through South China Sea,” writes Mr Kaplan.

The amount of oil transported through the South China Sea, fuelling the big economies of Taiwan, Japan, China and South Korea, is more than six times the amount that passes through the Suez Canal, he writes.

“This comprises nearly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 per cent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and about 80 per cent of China’s crude-oil imports,” Mr Kaplan writes.

According to Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, 60 per cent of Australia’s trade must also traverse the South China Sea.

With the rise in demand for energy resources, historical maritime disputes have been further exacerbated by the discovery of oil and gas in the region.

According to Mr Kaplan, proven oil reserves stand at around 7 billion barrels and natural gas at 900 trillion cubic feet, but estimations of potential reserves stand at much more.
Next … Potential for Conflict

Potential for Conflict

Although it is understandable for countries to defend the security of their energy supplies, the Chinese regime has taken aggressive action in the area.

Chinese forces have openly provoked the Philippines, putting up structures and patrolling in areas claimed by the Philippines, and allegedly opening fire on Filipino fishermen, AFP reported earlier this year. China has caused similar incidents with Japan and Indonesia.

A lead editorial published Sept. 27 in the Chinese Communist Party-funded and nationalist newspaper The Global Times, titled “The Time to Use Force Has Arrived in the South China Sea; Let’s Wage Wars on the Philippines and Vietnam to Prevent More Wars,” argues that now is the right time for China to start a war in southeast Asia for economic benefit.

The article also suggests that a war in the South China Sea would deal a blow to the West: “The South China Sea is the best place for China to wage wars” because “of the more than 1,000 oil rigs there, none belongs to China; of the four airfields in the Spratly Islands, none belongs to China. Once a war is declared, the South China Sea will be a sea of fire [with burning oil rigs]. Who will suffer the most from a war? Once a war starts there, the Western oil companies will flee the area, who will suffer the most?”

China has also driven the regional agenda, insisting on a “divide and rule” approach of bilateral negotiations rather than multilateral.

The weakness of regional architecture to deal with disputes is a major defense concern.

“Security in the Asia-Pacific region is not underwritten by the strong institutional mechanisms that we take for granted in the West,” noted Mr. Rudd in a speech to university students in Tasmania earlier this year.

As China increasingly flexes its muscle in the region, Southeast Asian nations have increasingly sought U.S. engagement. The United States has, accordingly, responded by holding joint naval exercises with a number of nations in the region, including Vietnam.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in Hanoi earlier this year that the United States had “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” She called for a “collaborative diplomatic process.”

Code of Conduct

However, solutions must ultimately come from within the region and to that effect, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region’s largest multilateral forum, has been working to address tensions between China and ASEAN. But it has taken 20 years.

As economies develop in the Asia Pacific, the South China Sea, the world’s busiest seaway, is fast becoming the focus of tensions across the region.

“Things do not necessarily have to be this slow,” said Indonesian President Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at a keynote speech to ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Bali in July.

“We need to send a strong signal to the world that the future of the South China Sea is a predictable, manageable and optimistic one.”

Indeed, the 10 member states of ASEAN did agree to guidelines on a 2002 Declaration of Conduct at the Bali meetings, but analysts and some member states have expressed dissatisfaction.

“It sounds impressive, but it will have almost no impact on the risks of incidents at sea,” says Rory Medcalf, a former Australian diplomat and intelligence analyst with the Lowy Institute.
“We are hearing fuzzy, high-sounding diplomatic talk—but this is not a proper code of conduct.”

Speaking on ABC radio, Mr Rudd said a third stage of negotiations will develop a more detailed code of conduct for the region.

“That’s the next piece of work and I think, having spoken to many of my ASEAN colleagues, they’ve got their sleeves rolled up ready to this next important task in order to preserve the peace and security of our wider region,” he said.



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