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South China Sea Dispute
Greg Torode, chief Asia correspondent for the South China Morning Post, the excellent Hong Kong paper, tackled the territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
[If you are not familiar with this body of water, you may want to glance at a map. I am unable to post graphics here but picture China to the north and the sea is between the Philippines and Vietnam.]
Diplomacy, including at a recent Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meeting, helped lower tensions some, except in the case of the Philippines, which is trying to seek an international court ruling of its claims, which would need Beijing’s support and this isn’t about to happen.
China instead maintains it “will continue to contribute to peace and stability in Asia,” as noted by the foreign minister, while asserting China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the entire South China Sea.
The goal among Asean nations is a new code of conduct, a legally binding document. Just when this comes about is anyone’s guess.
“Amid the wait, the value of the South China Sea is not in doubt. Rich in oil, fish and tourism potential, it is one of the world’s most important stretches of water, linking the economies of China, Japan and South Korea to the world. And it carries much of their imported oil.”
But Torode also discusses the important “nine-dash line.” What is it?
The so-called line covers virtually the entire South China Sea. “It reaches more than 1,600 kilometers from China’s shores into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia. China has signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and many analysts believe the line cannot be legally justified under the law’s terms and international norms. It is a potential point of contention should any negotiations loom.
“The law provides for an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles out from baselines off a state’s coast. A map showing the hypothetical economic zones of claimants to the South China Sea – China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei – paints a very different picture to the nine-dash line.
“While China repeatedly asserts its sovereignty, both in words and through the actions of its maritime surveillance ships operating off southeast Vietnam and west of the Philippine island of Palawan, Beijing has never formally spelt out its precise limits or meaning.
“It did, however, attach a map with the nine dashes in a protest to the UN in 2009 over a joint Vietnamese-Malaysian submission. Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia filed counter protests. Indonesia, not a claimant to the South China Sea but whose waters are close to the southern tip of the line, also protested.
“Long a point of regional concern – it has appeared on Chinese official maps since the late 1940s after first being drawn by a Kuomintang general – back-room tensions over the line have recently burst into the open. Addressing a defense forum in June with Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, Vietnam’s defense chief insisted that the nine-dash line could not be used as the basis for any future joint development deal.
“Ahead of the Asean meeting, Singapore urged China to clarify its claims to help provide a peaceful solution. At the meeting itself, (Philippine Foreign Minister Albert) Del Rosario was the most explicit, saying the nine-dash line had no basis in international law.
“ ‘If Philippine sovereign rights can be denigrated by this baseless claim, many countries should begin to contemplate the potential threat to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,’ he said.
“His remarks drew swift condemnation from Beijing, with delegation spokesman Liu Weimin issuing a statement challenging Del Rosario’s comments. Facts proved they were totally groundless, he said….
“(But) as they seek to cool heads, Chinese officials call for joint development and one-to-one negotiations and restate China’s historic and legal claims to the South China Sea. They rarely mention the line in official discussions. ‘The line is not something we feel we need to discuss,’ one Chinese envoy said privately….
“Vietnam and the Philippines have both vowed to push ahead with oil exploration activity – over China’s objections – as part of deals struck with foreign firms. China is actively modernizing its fleet of maritime surveillance vessels with the stated goal of responding to breaches of sovereignty in the South China Sea.
“Less visibly, all claimants apart from Brunei have been gradually building up their military facilities in the Spratley Islands. Vietnam is by far the biggest landlord across the archipelago, occupying more than 25 shoals and reefs – a point which is of increasing concern to PLA [China] naval strategists. Regional military attaches warn that the risk of clashes, accidental or otherwise, is significant.”