China blamed for escalating East Sea tensions

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Military action a remote possibility, but quest for peaceful solutions weakened by Chinese aggression and obfuscation, experts say

Traditional bamboo fishing boats on My Khe Beach in the central coastal city of Da Nang. Experts say China's recent actions, including the arrest of 21 Vietnamese fishermen on March 3, have worsened tensions in the East Sea. Photo: AFP

China's plan to publish a map that claims disputed regions and its aggressive actions of late have worsened tensions in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea. But military actions are unlikely, experts say.

On March 27, the South China Morning Post said China will publish a map of the South China Sea this year to "strengthen their claim to the disputed region." The map is part of a national campaign involving a dozen ministries and the Chinese Communist Party's publicity department to help raise public awareness of the country's territories and safeguard its sovereignty in disputed areas, the paper reported.

"Recent actions suggest that China intends to continue to assert itself in the South China Sea, [despite] the political costs in terms of escalating anxiety and concern among its neighbors," said Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

"China's actions asserting its sovereignty in the South China Sea, including in areas under dispute with its neighbors, is forcing other countries to ask what China wants and who China wants to be," he told Vietweek, referring to the plans to publish a map and the recent arrest of Vietnamese fishermen.

Tensions over territorial disputes in the East Sea have emerged since 2009, after a United Nations' commission set a deadline for countries to submit claims for extended exclusive economic zones beyond the 200 nautical miles set out by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Major claimants to part or whole of the disputed waters - believed to be rich in oil and other resources and straddling shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East - are Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Among recent aggressive actions by China in the East Sea was the detention of two Vietnamese fishing boats and 21 crews on March 3 near the Hoang Sa (Paracels) Archipelago, following which Hanoi demanded their "immediate and unconditional" release.

In February, China had also prevented 11 Vietnamese fishermen from approaching the islands to take shelter from storms, the Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

On March 15, Vietnam demanded that China cease all activities that violate Vietnam's sovereignty over the Hoang Sa Archipelago.

The activities include: the China National Offshore Oil Corporation's bid for 19 blocks in an area north of the East Sea, including one located one nautical mile off Dao Cay (Tree Island); a live-fire exercise in Hoang Sa on March 2; plans to expand tourism to the archipelago; plans to build the "Nanhai" (East Sea) seabed Archaeology Center and the Xisha (Hoang Sa) working station; and a sailing competition from Sanya to Hoang Sa.

Bower said that China "is not speaking with one voice on its objectives and intent in the South China Sea."

"Earlier this month, a Chinese ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson said that "˜no country claims all of the waters of the South China Sea' and some analysts saw this as a softening of the Chinese position."

He said some analysts believe that China's "mixed messages" are part of a long term strategy in which China will continue to assert itself and attempt to convert historical claims to legal claims.

"If smaller countries can be convinced not to oppose these claims and assert their own, through force, strong words or economic pressure, [then] China's claims will gain legal legitimacy over time," he said.

Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, said if China uses the map to raise public awareness of the dispute without clarifying what it means, it will only lead to more uncertainty.

"Vietnam and the Philippines could also ask the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) for an advisory opinion on China's claims. Although China would not be bound by ITLOS rulings, it would certainly put pressure on China to clarify its claims," he told Vietweek.

While military action cannot be ruled out in the East Sea dispute, Storey said the chances of a major conflict are not very high.

"However, given the increasing number of incidents at sea involving fishing trawlers, warships, coast guard vessels and survey ships, the risk of an accidental clash at sea escalating into a more serious crisis is rising," he said.

Bower of CSIS urged involved countries to discuss issues that could elevate into conflict so that parties can understand each another's positions, contingencies planned, and creative solutions found to dispute resolution.

"Armed conflict in the South China Sea is not good for any country, and no one wants to see this happen. However, armed conflict has occurred in the past and it cannot be ruled out," he said.

Meanwhile, Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based maritime policy analyst, said China's plan to publish the map was "nothing new."

"[Vietnam should] issue its usual protest and reiterate its claims to sovereignty of the features and whatever else it claims," he said.

In a March 26 article in the Japan Times, Valencia was not optimistic about the prospects for the Code of Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (COC).

He wrote the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC), with guidelines for its implementation agreed on last July, was weak and nonbinding and has not prevented incidents in the sea.

"It is thus no surprise that China is not particularly keen on being bound by a robust code (COC). The parties embarked on a new round of negotiations in January 2012 and there was hope that a code could be agreed, presented and approved at the planned ASEAN-China summit in Phnom Penh in November 2012 "” the 10th anniversary of the DOC," Valencia wrote. "But given the political differences that must be bridged, many are skeptical that the target will be met then "” if ever."

The article said the continuity and robustness of the process is also uncertain given the leadership lineup in ASEAN "” Cambodia this year and Brunei next year followed by Myanmar and then Laos.

"Several of these countries are considered somewhat closer to China than other ASEAN members. Indeed, Cambodia's neutral position on the disputes themselves may favor any attempt by China to demur and obfuscate," Valencia wrote.

"Nevertheless, it is likely that the fundamental drivers of the disputes - sovereignty, nationalism and access to resources - will continue to bedevil the negotiations, and the prospects for a strong code of conduct are rather dim."

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