Maneuverings at ASEAN over South China Sea Dispute Leaves Hard Feelings
China scored a diplomatic win this past week when foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations failed to agree on a unified approach to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But Beijing’s win wasn’t unqualified. The fervor of the debate at the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia showed that some nations with rival claims in the region, most notably Vietnam, don’t intend to let China push them around.
Chinese officials seemed confident all along that they could dodge any tough action by ASEAN on a code of conduct in addressing the rival claims over the South China Sea. Maybe that was because they had the summit host, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, backing their strategy to keep the dispute out of the regional forum.
“We believe the South China Sea issue is not an issue between China and the ASEAN,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin. “It is an issue between China and certain ASEAN members.”
ASEAN, Liu continued, is “an important platform for relevant countries to enhance mutual trust and cooperation. It is not a proper place to discuss the South China Sea.”
Code of Conduct Blocked
With that, China’s conference ally, Cambodia, successfully blocked any consensus on a code of conduct for the maritime dispute — despite mediation by Indonesia and Singapore, and despite concessions from Vietnam and the Philippines. Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, called the outcome “utterly irresponsible,” saying “ASEAN should be seen to be acting as one. I find it perplexing, and to be candid and honest, really, really disappointing.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agrees that, wherever possible, territorial disputes are best resolved directly between claimants. But at the meeting in Cambodia, she said broader questions about national conduct in disputed regions need to be addressed in multilateral settings — such as ASEAN — “because approaching them strictly bilaterally could be a recipe for confusion and even confrontation,” Clinton said.
“We believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats, and certainly without the use of force,” she told reporters in Phnom Penh. “No nation can fail to be concerned by the increase in tensions, the uptick in confrontational rhetoric.”
What Clinton calls “worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and government vessels” include April’s stand-off between Chinese and Filipino ships in the disputed Scarborough Shoal area as well as more frequent patrols by the China Marine Surveillance fleet.
Beijing’s territorial claims in the region stretch hundreds of kilometers south from Hainan island. According to Beijing, the claims are based on what it says are more than 2,000 years of history in the Paracel and Spratly island chains. Vietnam is equally determined in pressing its claims, saying it has overseen those island chains since the 17th Century, dismissing Chinese claims as less than 100 years old.
Last year, both countries launched rival live-fire exercises when a Chinese fishing boat severed the exploration cables of a Vietnamese ship.
Then last month, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a law claiming sovereignty over both island chains. Beijing answered that with an offer to lease new oil-exploration blocks inside Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Malaysia also has claims on some of the Spratlys. And other parts of 3.5 million square kilometer South China Sea are claimed by Brunei and Taiwan.
One of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the South China Sea is also thought to be rich in oil and gas. Estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration put natural gas reserves at more than 25 trillion cubic meters. The agency cites Chinese estimates of more than 200 billion barrels of crude oil, but U.S. projections are closer to 30 billion barrels.
That’s enough to focus the attention of any nation, especially one like China, whose growing appetite for natural resources has it reaching out to Africa and South America for supplies. But the presence of such mineral riches so close to home is making it difficult for Beijing to coordinate as many as 11 ministry-level agencies, local governments, and private sector interests in the South China Sea.
“Some agencies are acting assertively to compete for a slice of the budget pie, while others such as local governments are focused on economic growth, leading them to expand their activities into disputed waters”, says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the North East Asia Project director for the International Crisis Group.
“Their motivations are domestic in nature, but the impact of their actions is increasingly international.”