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China And The South China Sea: Time For Code Of Conduct? – Analysis


Recent incidents in the South China Sea point to China’s growing assertiveness and seeming readiness to pressure other countries to recognise its claims. The region urgently needs a Code of Conduct that is specifically designed for the prevention of armed conflict in the disputed areas.

By Aileen S.P. Baviera

IN THE last several months, a number of incidents occurred that highlight what appears to be growing willingness by China to use its armed strength to pressure and influence rival claimants, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, in the disputed South China Sea. In February, there were reported incidents of Filipino fishermen being threatened and fired on from Chinese vessels. On 2 March 2011, two Chinese patrol boats confronted a Philippine oil exploration vessel MV Veritas Voyager and ordered it to cease activities in the Reed Bank area, which they said was under Chinese jurisdiction.

Subsequently, China announced plans to anchor an oil rig in the Spratlys. In late May, the Philippines discovered posts and a buoy on Amy Douglas Bank thought to have been unloaded by Chinese vessels, indicating possible new construction plans. Meanwhile, a Chinese marine surveillance vessel approached a Petrovietnam ship and cut an undersea cable that it was laying within Hanoi’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), provoking public demonstrations in Hanoi.

China’s Worrisome Posture

China's Claims in South China Sea
China's Claims in South China Sea

The assertions of sovereignty themselves are not new, as this is a long-standing dispute where actions by one claimant or another would invariably draw sharp reactions from others. But it is China’s actions, now backed by more modern maritime enforcement capabilities and demonstrating a more assertive and decidedly nationalistic streak, that are proving to be most worrisome.

The perennial guessing game remains whether the recent acts of asserting sovereignty are being undertaken with the full knowledge and support of central authorities in Beijing, or whether – as argued by Stein Tonneson and others – these represented not a new Chinese strategy but rather “a number of ill-advised, uncoordinated, sometimes arrogant moves” by various institutions pursuing their respective mandates. Ultimately, neither explanation brings comfort to China’s neighbours.

Chinese government spokespersons have in fact described supposed intrusions into the Philippines as “normal marine research activities”, and the incident with Vietnam as “normal marine law enforcement and surveillance activities” in “China’s territorial waters”. Indeed, China Daily reported late last year that its China Marine Surveillance (CMS) authority was adding over 1,000 new personnel, 36 ships and new equipment to strengthen their “enforcement capacity”. Established in 1998, the CMS claimed to have 91 patrol boats at the end of 2005, which had increased to 300 boats and 10 aircraft by the end of 2010.

Such a prospect of a large Chinese presence – navy, paramilitary, or civilian – behaving in disputed waters as though they were universally recognised authorities “normally” enforcing Chinese law in its “indisputable” territory, is not something the neighbours are likely to warm up to. And if ships, persons and properties of neighbouring states and foreign companies engaged in resource exploration can be targets of intimidation, why not some commercial ship navigating the sealanes in the future? If present trends were to continue, China’s oft-stated pledge to uphold freedom of sealanes will begin to ring hollow.

Need for Code of Conduct

For now, China appears to be taking the strongest action against unilateral oil exploration activities. Prior to the latest incidents, it had prevented international oil companies BP and Exxonmobil from exploring in Vietnam-claimed areas, reportedly warning them that doing so would affect their own projects in China. Chinese officials and scholars have also recently been mouthing the mantra of joint development, perhaps indicating that the reason behind the strong pressure is to nudge Vietnam and the Philippines back onto this track and away from unilateral exploration, following their initial trilateral cooperation for joint seismic research in the Philippine EEZ. (The trilateral research lapsed inconclusively in 2008 after getting entangled in Philippine domestic politics.)

If so, it would be a strange form of persuasion, but one that both Vietnam and the Philippines should study carefully in terms of balancing their respective security and economic goals, while simultaneously promoting national interests and regional stability. Even so, public opposition in the Philippines will likely impede any new agreement that involves joint resource exploitation in the areas closest only to the Philippines.

Given the brewing tensions, there is a need for the various parties to seriously pursue discussions not just on the implementing guidelines of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, as the DOC has likely been overtaken by events. What is needed is a Code of Conduct that is specifically dedicated to the prevention of armed conflict in the disputed areas. China’s legitimate interests in the South China Sea, as well as everyone else’s, will need to be addressed through dialogue and negotiation. However, China must step back from its posture of intimidation, if not the actual use of force, to pressure others into recognition of its claims.

China must bear much of the burden for lowering military tensions and restoring an atmosphere conducive to dialogue. On the other hand, Vietnam, the Philippines and ASEAN as a whole will do well to build their own consensus on the issue and clarify to China the parameters of their proposed multilateral approach for addressing the disputes, as well as their expectations for the Code of Conduct.

Aileen San Pablo-Baviera is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and a professor at the Asian Centre, University of the Philippines. She is also affiliated with the MacArthur Asia Security Initiative project on “Policy Alternatives for Integrating Bilateral and Multilateral Regional Security Approaches in the Asia Pacific”.

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RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries. For any republishing of RSIS articles, consent must be obtained from S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

3 thoughts on “China And The South China Sea: Time For Code Of Conduct? – Analysis

  • June 20, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Chinese South China Sea sovereignty is based on:

    1. China’s historical first discovery and claim in 618 A.D.

    2. Unchallenged Chinese dominion for over a thousand years.

    The South China Sea islands and territory were claimed by the Tang, Song, and countless other Chinese dynasties. Vietnamese and Filipinos lacked ocean-faring boats and were not even aware of the existence of the Paracel and Spratly Islands from the 7th century to the 17th century.

    3. Historical written Chinese imperial records.

    Tang, Song, and countless Chinese dynasties describe the Paracel and Spratly Islands as part of China.

    4. Physical proof of Chinese inhabitants (Chinese burials and artifacts)

    5. Vietnamese ceded any potential legal claim to the Paracel and Spratly Islands on September 14, 1958 in a signed diplomatic document by Vietnam Premier Pham Van.

    6. The entire Vietnamese government admitted to Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and territory.

    On June 15, 1956, Vice Foreign Minister of the DRV (North Vietnam) Ung Van Khiem admitted Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

    Another DRV official, Le Loc (Temporary Head of the Asian Mission), concurred in Chinese sovereignty over South China Sea islands.

    • June 24, 2011 at 2:56 am

      I think your information is untrue and fabrication in terms of Spratly and Paracel islands that belong to china long time ago. No Vietnamese kings or ancestors ever admitted that the islands belonging to China. How come, every time the words coming out from China or Chinese people full of untrue information – everything just made it up. If base on hystory, then there should be proof of citizens living on the islands, and no Chinese citizens ever set foot on those islands except, the vietnamese citizens has occupied for years. Do not fool by your government and you chinese people just follow leader. This would lead China to a hole.

  • June 21, 2011 at 1:20 am

    All sheet of prejudice against China. The author, would you please do justice to China and put yourself in Chinese place? China is being besieged by all these hostile countries who are coveting the rich resources in the South China Sea? What would you do if you were in China’s place? The US is deliberately interfering into the regional and domestic affairs, but who ever said a word about its hegemony? Why couldn’t you tolerate a rising China who wants nothing but peace and harmony? If there were no hegemony, China would not need to challenge it. China deserves whatever a normal country needs, a safe neighbouring environment! Come on, please do justice to China!


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