The spate of events in the South China Sea does not bode well with China, with many Asean countries adopting a “push back” strategy against Beijing’s unilateral expansion in the region.
The Philippines have recently suggested that it would not have qualms going to war with China, which is in sharp contrast to the concessions that it accorded to the Chinese in spite of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling.
At the recently concluded Shangri-La dialogue, the US, India, Vietnam, France and Britain had all spoken strongly against China’s assertive and destabilising actions in the South China Sea.
Malaysia like Vietnam and the Philippines is embarking on a military buildup to better protect their own maritime claims and interests in the area. The Malaysian government recently announced that it would upgrade its stock of naval aircraft as well as purchase shipboard naval helicopters.
With the push against China gathering steam, the latter need to articulate its position in the South China Sea and the wanton disregard of the various treaties and conventions that regulate the conduct of the various countries in the maritime area.
Some have pointed out that China’s dispute in the South China Sea is essentially its dilemma with the United Nation Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). While China took part in the UNCLOS talks between 1973 and 1982, at that time it was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese negotiators were given the three leadership guidelines which were to be anti-hegemonic; to be in support of the Third World and protect national interests.
At the time, many Latin American and African nations were calling for 50-200 nautical miles (nm) territorial sea under full sovereignty as all these countries lacked the capability of the developed countries like the US and the then Soviet Union to protect their waters. Even at that time, sources say, the Chinese had thought that a 200 nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ) may not be in China’s national interests.
A book by Liu Feng, former vice president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, sees China as the big loser in UNCLOS due to its unfavourable geographic location.
China’s geography inhibits the realisation of its maritime ambitions as it is open to the seas, but not the oceans and China’s maritime space lacks breadth altogether. All in all, the book argues that the 200 nm EEZ rule agreed upon in UNCLOS greatly restrains China’s maritime space.
Considering China’s deep-seated interest in the region, Asean countries must take a look at the circumstance in which China had come to terms with UNCLOS and offer an olive branch, albeit with extreme conditions attached. The idea is to get China on board to ensure a joint exploration and joint security operations between China and Asean in the seas.
This can be achieved through meaningful and constructive dialogues between China and the Asean countries. To start with, China must be made to agree that its splitting of Asean in the South China Sea will be proven to be fruitless. That entails a form of unity among Asean nations in order for China to know its limits in the region.
It is estimated that the South China Sea holds 11 billion barrels of oil, which is equivalent of Mexico’s proven reserves and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a significant sum for a region where energy demand continues to grow quickly.
Joint exploration of these resources by member countries with China could ensure peace and prosperity among Asean countries as China would gain considerably through a peaceful Asean, instead of a “tamed” Asean.
China has recently proposed to Asean that the two sides hold regular joint military exercises and this would at least allay fears of Chinese dominance in the region. It also said China and Asean should work towards enhanced economic co-operation. Likewise, Asean could also have military exercises with the US, again allaying fear among the Chinese and the Americans of the specter of any one of the superpowers asserting dominance in the region.
The South China Sea is also known to have a huge abundance of fish. They are at least 3,365 known species of marine fishes and 12 percent of the total fishing catch worth $21.8 billion for the region.
There have again been instances of Vietnamese fishing boats being attacked by the Chinese. There are plenty of opportunities for all member countries to extract catches from the maritime area without the need for the Chinese to be aggressive against Asean states.
Protracted feud and infighting, let alone military action, if taken by either party would not be beneficial to both Asean and China. The stakes are high as China is the biggest trading partner among Asean countries and the Asean countries are also the biggest beneficiary of Chinese investments in the region. Asean may extend an olive branch to China by impressing upon China that their prosperity is intertwined China, on the other hand, risks losing everything, if it continues its stance in the South China Sea as Asean countries might turn to the US to balance obtrusive behaviours in the region.
Sathish Govind used to be in a think-tank in Malaysia.