SINGAPORE—In the turbulent seascape of East and Southeast Asia, no area is of greater strategic importance than the South China Sea. Approximately one-third of the world’s annual maritime trade and more than half its annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through this area. Every year, $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade crosses the South China Sea, as does about 80 percent of China’s imported oil supplies, and about 66 percent of South Korea and 60 percent of Japan’s imported energy supplies. Even before the recent stand-off between China and the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal, it was clear that maritime security in general, and the South China Sea in particular, was going to feature prominently at the Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue, held last weekend in Singapore by the London-based think-tank International Institute for Strategic Studies. Three separate discussions considered everything from the potentially destabilizing impact of increasing submarine procurements in the region to the protection of maritime freedoms and the fight against piracy.
But it was the containment of sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea that attracted the most intense attention, and not just from delegates representing the six parties with overlapping claims (China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan), or the remaining six non-claimant members of ASEAN. Whilst China continues to warn against the “internationalization” of these disputes, not a single speaker mentioned the subject of maritime freedom and security without emphasizing the need for a responsible management of the South China Sea disputes. For example, U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta took care to remind delegates of his country’s “national interest in freedom of navigation, in unimpeded economic development and commerce, and in respect for the rule of law.”
If China’s desire is to reassure both U.S. and South East Asian concerns on these issues, its behavior sometimes suggests the reverse. For starters, China presently refuses to clarify the exact nature of its claims in the South China Sea — sometimes represented, including in official documents, by the so-called “nine-dash line,” which incorporates almost the entirety of the sea. It has also not explained the basis for any claims — which it has referred to as “historical,” rather than grounded in international law such as the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Whilst the Philippines wishes to see its ongoing dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal referred to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, Beijing remains adamant that this is a matter for bilateral diplomacy, not third-party rulings. Meanwhile, in the bilateral dispute between Vietnam and China over the Paracel Islands — where China has enjoyed de-facto control since its seizure of the islands from South Vietnam in 1974 — a Chinese delegate calmly reminded participants that his country didn’t even recognize the existence of this dispute.
To prevent or at least contain the risk of escalation and conflict arising out of these sovereignty conflicts, many countries in the region want a legally binding and substantive Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Ten years after China’s initial commitment to this cause, made in the China-ASEAN 2002 Declaration of Conduct, progress is finally being made. Yet as discussions this weekend made clear, controversies continue. ASEAN nations, now in the process of drafting such a code, continue to disagree on the substance of the draft as well as the appropriate stage at which to include China in their discussions. Meanwhile, to China’s fury, it appears that the United States is quietly offering intellectual input on the drafting, anxious not to see China’s commitment to sign such a text squandered on an insubstantial document.
Differences within ASEAN as well as between ASEAN and China may serve to limit ambitions for the eventual content of the code. This would be a mistake. Momentum will have to be sustained, but patience and perseverance will also be needed. The desired outcome is not a code at any price, but a code that promotes mature and predictable handling of sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. Speed matters, but substance matters more.
Sarah Raine is a non-resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David Mercil/(Released)