China Becomes Aggressive in South China Sea
By WENDELL MINNICK
SINGAPORE — Tensions from overlapping claims in the South China Sea have been rising in the past several months as China increases naval patrols in the region and ignores the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of its neighbors. This despite the signing of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) by China and the 10member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which encourages a peaceful resolution to disputes but is not legally binding.
Since January, Chinese vessels have harassed Filipino and Vietnamese fishing and oil exploration vessels with greater regularity, including allegations China has placed equipment near Reed Bank. On May 26, Chinese vessels harassed a Vietnamese oil survey vessel within Vietnam’s EEZ.
Official Chinese statements on both incidents stressed “Chinese jurisdiction” and “Chinese management” of the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Vietnam has announced it will hold live-fire drills this week in the South China Sea.
“It’s part of a pattern of assertive behavior” by China and “another indication that the South China Sea dispute continues to trend in a negative direction,” said Ian Storey, an ASEAN specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
The number of incidents in the past few months involving the Philippines and Vietnam has increased as Beijing becomes more confident over claims to fishing and oil resources in the area, he said.
"China has long held the view that its neighbors are “stealing resources that rightly belong to it,” Storey said.
In response, China is strengthening its naval and maritime law enforcement agencies with new vessels and increased patrols in the region. China is expected to begin sea trials of its first aircraft carrier soon and will most likely deploy the vessel to the South China Sea.
“China’s claims to ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the South China Sea [have] no basis in International law, especially the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea,” said Carl Thayer, a regional maritime specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy. The most disturbing Chinese claim is a “nine-dash mark U-shaped map” that covers 80 percent of the South China Sea, he said.
Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie tried to calm fears over rising tensions during the 10th Shangri-La Dialogue, held here June 3-5 and sponsored by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London.
Liang said China was committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and would adhere to the 2002 DOC.
However, the DOC has no legal basis and is largely adhered to in the spirit of cooperation, Thayer said.
During Shangri-La, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said he was optimistic ASEAN and China would “soon be able to agree on a more binding code of conduct” to replace the DOC.
During the summit, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said there was interest in ensuring these conflicts and competing claims are resolved peacefully but also said there were increased concerns in the region over China’s behavior in the South China Sea.
“I feel that without rules of the road and without agreed approaches to dealing with these problems, there will be clashes, and I do not believe that this serves anybody’s interests,” Gates said. “The key is to find some kind of multilateral mechanism to resolve these issues.”
Some 2011 South China Sea incidents:
Feb. 25: A Chinese frigate fired warning shots at three Filipino fishing boats near the Jackson atoll near Palawan Island, Philippines.
March 2: Two Chinese maritime patrol vessels threatened to ram a Philippine government energy research vessel, the M/V Venture, conducting a seismic survey in the Reed Bank area near Palawan Island.
May: China announces a unilateral fishing ban for the northern part of the South China Sea from May to August.
May: Vietnam alleges Chinese naval vessels fired on four Vietnamese fishing vessels near East London Reef and Cross Island.
May: Chinese vessels laid steel posts and a buoy in the Amy Douglas Bank, southwest of Reed Bank within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zones.
May 11: Two unidentified fighter jets, alleged to be Chinese, were sighted near Palawan Island.
May 23: Philippine President Benigno Aquino III warned Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie during his visit to Manila of a possible arms race if tensions worsened over South China Sea disputes.
May 26: Three Chinese state-operated Ocean Marine Surveillance vessels harassed the Binh Minh 02, a vessel owned by the oil company PetroVietnam, cutting a towed survey cable. The incident occurred within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
June 9: A Chinese fishing boat rammed a PetroVietnam vessel conducting an oil survey within Vietnam’s EEZ. It is the second Chinese attack on a Vietnamese PetroVietnam vessel in the past two weeks.