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Prof. Thayer: Internationalize South China Sea Issue Might Work

Posted Nov 25 2011 1:15am
email Prof. Thayer: Internationalize South China Sea Issue Might Work
Asean’s weakness compels members to hedge their bets. But making the issue international might work.

U.S. President Barack Obama raised the territorial dispute, but Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao snapped back, arguing the summit wasn’t the place to discuss the issue, which should be solved bilaterally by the states concerned. Finally, chairman of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono noted,

While this was a hopeful sign, Internationalizing the issue to the extent possible might be the best bet to pressure China to tone down its position of “indisputable sovereignty” over 80% of the South China Sea.

This year China has aggressively asserted its sovereignty claims in the area by challenging oil exploration vessels operating in waters claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. In the former case, an exploration vessel was forced to leave Reed Bank by a Chinese ship. As for Vietnam, Chinese ships reportedly cut the cables of two vessels towing seismic monitoring equipment.

But Asean has failed to adopt a common policy on the issue, essentially conceding to China that maritime security issues involve only the six claimantsChina, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Bruneiand not the six other non-claimant members of Asean.

This is a deeply flawed strategy. Maritime security in Southeast Asia affects both claimants and non-claimants as international law applies equally everywhere. Reaching a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea frees China to act assertively in Southeast Asian waters stretching from the eastern Indian Ocean through to the Gulf of Thailand.

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A Chinese fort on Mischief Reef, claimed by the Philippines.

Both seek support from major regional powers, including the United States. However, both are also trying to maintain good relations with Beijing.

Both Asean countries are courting the U.S. and arming for potential conflict, taking measures to beef up their military forces for South China Sea contingencies. The Philippines revised its defense doctrine to include territorial defense and increased defense funding for the modernization of its armed forces. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario earlier this year went to Washington, making the case that the 1951 treaty between the two countries obligated the superpower to come to Manila’s defense.

As for Vietnam, it announced several years ago that it would procure six Kilo-class conventional submarines from Russia. This year Vietnam received the second delivery of a Russian Gepard-class guided missile frigate, its second battery of Bastion land-based anti-ship cruise missiles and additional Sukhoi Su-30 jet fighters. Vietnam even held widely publicized live-fire naval exercises to signal its resolve after the cable cutting incidents.

Then there’s the advanced defense ties with the U.S. Hanoi and Washington signed their first defense cooperation agreement this year, and two U.S. military sealift ships have undertaken minor repairs in Cam Ranh Bay.

But this doesn’t mean Vietnam is abandoning its military relationship with China. Security analysts who think the U.S. will return to its former base at Cam Ranh Bay are too hasty. In fact, Vietnam has successfully used a better relationship with the U.S. to enhance its bargaining position with China. This year it conducted joint naval patrols with the Chinese navy in the Gulf of Tonkin and Vietnamese naval ships made their second port visit to China. The joint statement issued on Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to China included a lengthy paragraph spelling out future defense cooperation.

Manila and Hanoi have sought to engage China diplomatically to lower tensions. Philippines President Benigno Aquino visited Beijing in September before Secretary General Trong visited in October.

But this policy isn’t just playing off the U.S. against China. Both countries are trying to internationalize the issue. The Philippines took the lead this year by raising the matter with the United Nations and by lobbying fellow Asean members to support an initiative to clarify which areas of the South China Sea are in dispute and which are not.

Mr. Aquino and Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, have also made separate visits to Tokyo, where they elicited Japanese support. Vietnam cleverly dispatched President Truong Tan Sang to India while its party leader was in Beijing. Vietnam and India announced a major oil deal, which China promptly protested.

The outreach to the U.S. is then part of the international strategy. Last year it was Vietnam, then Asean chair, which lobbied the U.S. and other regional countries to raise South China Sea issues. Eleven foreign ministers joined U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in raising concerns in July.

This is not a matter of opposing China, but rather of peace and prosperity that affects all in Asia. In Bali, Mr. Obama restated the U.S. position Mrs. Clinton articulated last yearthe U.S. takes no sides but supports a peaceful, collaborative diplomatic process based on international law and the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea in particular. He also restated U.S. interests as including freedom of navigation and unimpeded international commerce.

China might gnash its teeth, but Mr. Obama is hitting the right notes. This problem is global and might just force many countries in Asia to take sides. Beijing, which cares for saving face in the international stage, could soften. That could be the opportunity for Asean to press China for a settlement. A collaborative solution is possible, if Asean is up to the challenge.

Mr. Thayer is an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Via WSJ: South China Sea Two-Step

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