China has recently installed a $1 billion oil exploration rig in South China Sea. Vietnam naturally reacted vehemently; Hanoi even expelled ethnic Chinese working in Vietnam for anti-Vietnam activities. The Philippines, which also has territorial claims in the South China Sea, expressed its resentment a few days ago over Chinese moves to reclaim land around Johnson South Reef of the Spratly Islands, possibly to build an airstrip. Tensions began to mount when the Filipino maritime police arrested Chinese fishermen for poaching into what Manila considers its territorial waters.
Why has South China Sea become an area of conflict? What are the reasons for the present imbroglio? Every year $ 5.3 trillion worth of trade passes through South China Sea, of which the US accounts for 23 per cent. It is estimated that South China Sea contains 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet natural gas. No wonder all littoral states are vehemently staking claims. They are also expanding and modernising their armed forces. Since 2003, there has been an increase of 175 per cent in China’s military expenditure. What’s more, unlike earlier when Beijing used to emphasise the necessity for a peaceful periphery, today it is asserting its territorial claims. It considers South China Sea to be a “core area” that has to be safeguarded and protected. Japan has decided to donate coast guard patrol boats worth $110 millions to the Philippines. And, what’s more, senior officials of the US State Department have questioned the legitimacy of Chinese claims over South China Sea. Washington has asked Beijing not to impose an Air Defence Identification Scheme in the sea.
Conflicting claims have created tensions in the sea on a regular basis. In 1995 there were violent incidents near the Mischief Reef claimed by the Philippines. In 1997, similar incidents took place in the Scarborough Reef. As far as China-Vietnam relations are concerned, there had been a number of incidents in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos and continental shelf areas in South China Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin. Though land border between China and Vietnam was successfully delimited in 1999, South China Sea continues to be an area of simmering discontent caused mainly by oil exploration and deep sea fishing. The present crisis was a direct offshoot of the deployment of the deep water oil drilling rig 80 miles inside of what Vietnam considers Exclusive Economic Zone. The rig was escorted by over 80 armed naval vessels. They fired high power water cannons ramming Vietnam’s civilian ships.
How did the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) respond to the situation? The rig incident took place on the eve of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Myanmar. Naturally, the South China dispute overshadowed the summit. Both Vietnam and the Philippines appealed for condemnation of China’s aggressive designs but were unable to get their colleagues’ support. The ASEAN member states had differing perceptions on China. Backroom diplomacy finally led to a compromise. On May 10, ASEAN issued a statement on South China Sea. The statement did not mention either China or Vietnam by name. It called on all parties “to exercise self-restraint and avoid action which could undermine peace and stability in the area and to resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force”. Thus China’s intentions became a divisive issue once again. In the 2012 ASEAN summit, it may be recalled, the member states could not even issue a joint statement. Perceptive observers naturally interpreted the resolution as an attempt to sideline the issue. The resolution was an indicator that many member states didn’t want to openly criticise China.
It should be highlighted that several political commentators had praised ASEAN as a vibrant and successful political and economic regional organisation. Few years ago, explaining the concept of “togetherness” which brought cohesion and unity to ASEAN, former Malaysian foreign minister Ghazalie Shafie said ASEAN could be likened to a “cluster of bamboos, each of which was an independent entity and which together could withstand turbulent winds, the tallest of the bamboos must always stoop its head”. He added Indonesia was the largest nation in ASEAN, but it never imposed its will on other members. The Third Indo-China War, when ASEAN, with the support of China and the US, successfully isolated Vietnam in all international forums and rallied support for the Sihanouk-led coalition government in Cambodia was the high watermark in the history of ASEAN. But that cohesion and unity is no longer evident today.
Much water has flowed through the Malacca Strait and South China Sea after the Third Indo-China War. International relations in Southeast Asia have undergone a fundamental transformation. Membership of ASEAN has been expanded and all nations of the region are its members, Vietnam and the US are no longer bitter enemies but co-operate with one another in many spheres, including defence. China has undoubtedly emerged as the most powerful country in Asia. The dilemma facing Southeast Asian countries can be explained as follows. It is to balance their overwhelming dependence on China for trade and investment with the material and psychological dependence on the US military support. They consider US support as the best guarantee against possible Chinese aggressive designs in the maritime territorial disputes in South China and East China seas. China’s most vocal supporters are Cambodia and Laos, sharp critics are Vietnam and the Phlippines, and countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei fall in between.
China is vehemently opposed to internationalisation of territorial disputes. Beijing wants to resolve them strictly on a bilateral basis. China, therefore, has sharply criticised Hanoi and Manila for trying to mobilise ASEAN support. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman has explained: “China is opposed to certain countries’ scheme of spoiling the atmosphere of friendly co-operation between China and ASEAN by making use of the issue of South China Sea.”
During the Myanmar summit, China has successfully neutralised ASEAN from taking a unified stand. From an Indian point of view what must be underlined is the fact that China is the only country which has used force to buttress its territorial claims—against India in 1962, against the Soviet Union in 1969 and Vietnam in 1979. ASEAN can ignore this reality only at its peril.
The writer is former senior professor, the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org