South China Sea – Claimants dig in for control of sea lanes
“Fishermen poised to conquer South China Sea”. This could be the title of the latest Chinese epic film or of a novel based in ancient times, but it actually describes what is happening after Chinese authorities lifted a fishing ban in the contested waters. According to China Daily, fishermen in the Hainan and Guangdong provinces have resumed operations after the annual fishing ban in the northern part of the South China Sea was lifted at the beginning of the month. Declared on 16 May “to protect marine resources and promote environmental awareness among fishermen,” the ban was announced unilaterally for a contested area where five other countries claim ocean features and waters considered by Beijing its national territory. At the time, Vietnam and the Philippines, who are among the five claimants which also include Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia, protested against the Chinese decision. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi, in particular, defined it as “invalid.”
According to Chinese media, more than 14,000 fishing boats registered in the Guangdong province, and 9,000 ships carrying 35,611 fishermen from Hainan have already started their journey to the South China Sea to conduct fishing operations. But “the main purpose of China in sending such a large number of fishing boats to the East Sea (as the Vietnamese refer to the South China Sea) is not to fish,” stated the chairman of the Vietnam Fisheries Association, Nguyen Viet Thang. Fisheries resources are of significant economic importance, “but they also provide a pretext for increased civilian patrols in the South China Sea and rally nationalist sentiment,” as underlined in a recent report of the International Crises Group (ICG – ‘Stirring up the South China Sea II: Regional Responses‘).
Beyond the struggle for resources, from fisheries to potential hydrocarbon reserves, the dispute is increasingly becoming a geopolitical battleground. The situation offers no obvious peaceful solutions, although all the claimants, as well as other countries, such as the U.S., not directly involved but interested in ensuring the “freedom of navigation,” routinely claim to be searching for a peaceful outcome. If the goal seems to be clear, means to reach it diverge. Beijing insists on resolving the disputes bilaterally, while Vietnam and the Philippines are actively engaging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and foreign superpowers like the U.S. with the aim to internationalize the issue. But the results of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) held last July in Phnom Penh do not bode well for the future: for the first time in 45 years the AMM failed to agree on a joint communiqué due to the South China Sea issue, and probably because of Chinese pressure on the Cambodian chairmanship.
While some observers and experts have been trying to review and understand the diplomatic deadlock, others stressed the political mistakes coming also from Beijing. “China’s victory proved to be Pyrrhic. It won the battle of the comminiqué, but it may have lost 20 years of painstakingly accumulated goodwill, the result of efforts such as the ASEAN-China free-trade agreement, signed in November 2002,” wrote Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore. In the meantime, with no binding agreement, tension rising and increased chances of an incident among the thousands of boats, vessels and navies crossing one of the most active sea-regions in the world, nationalistic sentiment is rising. This is especially true for Vietnam, whose authorities draw on international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which all the claimant countries have ratified.
Under the UNCLOS, note Vietnamese authorities, a country has jurisdictional rights over fisheries resources in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and that country has the right to expel foreign fishing boats that illegally enter the EEZ. China’s claims are depicted by its nine-dotted line map, which shows a U-shaped line that encompasses the majority of the South China Sea, including all of the Spratly and Paracel islands, called Hoang Sa and Truong Sa by the Vietnamese. A map that Chinese authorities submitted to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, as a note verbale containing the term “relevant waters,” and thus raising grave concern among the claimants.
Adding to this, last June, the state-run China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) invited foreign energy companies to bid for exploration rights in nine blocks in the South China Sea. The blocks lie completely within Vietnam’s EEZ and overlap with those offered for development to foreign energy corporations by state-owned PetroVietnam.
However, while China bases its maritime claims on its land sovereignty, the ICG report underlines that “many of these land features would likely not meet qualifications set by UNCLOS to serve as a base for EEZs and continental shelves”. Key foreign ministry statements and two authoritative White Papers from 1979 and 1982 outlined claims to all features of both island chains and offer four main historical arguments – “Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa Archipelagos”, Vietnamese foreign ministry, 7 August 1979; White Papers of 28 September 1979 and 18 January 1982 -. A joint submission with Malaysia to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in May 2009 defined the 200-nautical mile EEZ limits drawn from the mainland.
The feeling is, that nobody wants to back down, particularly not China, at least not until the election of the nine new members of the party’s next Politburo Standing Committee, China’s most powerful decision-making body. According to some international media, the 18th National Congress, scheduled for September or October, may be delayed until November or even January 2013 due to the fallout from the Bo Xilai scandal. Moreover, in November ASEAN members will meet again in Phnom Penh with little hope of finalizing an effective and binding Code of Conduct on South China Sea. While the Chinese government publicly announced that it was ready to enter into formal discussions with ASEAN “when conditions were ripe”, China’s Central Military Committee simultaneously issued a directive establishing a military garrison in the (so-called) Sansha prefecture, which nominally administers all of the Spratly and Paracel islands, the Macclesfield Bank undersea atoll and surrounding waters. This double approach does not help to clarify an already complicated issue, the makings of which may be ripe for a movie script but are unfortunately not fiction.