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Storey and Thayer South China Sea Tensions

Storey and Thayer South China Sea Tensions

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Published by Carlyle Alan Thayer
An analysis of the failure of the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to regulate inter-state behaviour. A review of recent Chinese assertiveness directed mainly against Vietnam and U.S.-China tensions in the South China Sea.
An analysis of the failure of the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to regulate inter-state behaviour. A review of recent Chinese assertiveness directed mainly against Vietnam and U.S.-China tensions in the South China Sea.

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Published by: Carlyle Alan Thayer on Jun 09, 2010
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The South China Sea Dispute: A Review of Developments and their Implicationssince the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties
 Ian Storey and Carlyle A. Thayer
 Ian Storey is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.Carlyle A. Thayer is Professor of Politics, School of Humanities and Social Sciences,University College, University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, Australia.
Among all of Southeast Asia’s territorial disputes none is more complex and contentiousthan the South China Sea. For much of the 1990s this issue was a source of seriousinterstate tension between several ASEAN states and China. The focus of the dispute iscontested sovereignty over two chains of islands, the Paracels and Spratlys. The ParacelIslands, which lie off the central coast of Vietnam and southeast of China’s HainanIsland, are claimed by both the Chinese and Vietnamese governments. In 1974, China’sPeople’s Liberation Army (PLA) expelled South Vietnamese forces from the Paracelswhen Hanoi and Beijing were still nominal allies. Since 1975 Hanoi has consistentlyrejected China’s claim to sovereignty over the islands. The Paracel dispute is trulyintractable as Beijing considers the matter closed and even refuses to discuss the issuewith Vietnam.The Spratlys archipelago, located in the southern part of the South China Sea, iscomposed of over 170 geographical features, less than 50 of which can be called islandstechnically. Sovereignty of the features is claimed by five governments: China, Taiwan,Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Brunei only claims an Exclusive Economic Zone(EEZ). The islands, rocks and atolls that make up the Spratlys have no intrinsic value inthemselves. Sovereignty is contested because of the potential for rich hydrocarbondeposits under the seabed, and because the Spratlys lie adjacent to the vital Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) that pass through the South China Sea. Since the 1950s each of 
2the disputants except Brunei has occupied islands and stationed military forces on their  possessions.In the 1990s China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea stirred anxiety inthe ASEAN capitals. While China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had called on thedisputants to put aside their sovereignty claims and engage in joint exploration andexploitation of maritime resources, a series of actions taken by the Chinese governmentsuggested it was intent on enforcing its irredentist claims. In 1992, China passedlegislation that appeared to lay claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. In 1995, itrattled the ASEAN states by occupying and building military structures on Mischief Reef, a small atoll within the Philippines’ 200 nm EEZ; and throughout the 1990s Chinaand Vietnam sparred over ownership of off-shore oil fields close to the Vietnamese coast.China’s “creeping assertiveness” was interpreted by some as a worrying harbinger of howa powerful China might behave in the future. As Philippine President Fidel Ramoswarned in 1995, the Spratlys issue was “a litmus test of whether China as a Great Power intends to play by international rules, or make its own.”
 In the second half of the 1990s the Chinese government recognized that itsassertive behaviour in the South China Sea had been counterproductive in that it wasfuelling fears of a “China threat”. Accordingly, in 1995, Beijing began to show greater tactical flexibility by agreeing to discuss the dispute with the ASEAN states in amultilateral setting. These discussions by senior officials culminated in the Declarationon the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), signed by ASEAN and China in November 2002.
The 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea
Under the terms of the DoC the parties pledged to resolve their territorial and maritime boundary claims by peaceful means (Paragraph 4) and exercise “self restraint in theconduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes” including refrainingfrom occupying presently unoccupied features (Paragraph 5). Paragraph 6 enjoins thedisputants to undertake five kinds of cooperative activities: marine environmental protection; marine scientific research; safety of navigation and communication at sea;
3search and rescue operations; and combating transnational crime. The DoC also calls onclaimants to continue “consultations and dialogues” for the purpose of “promoting goodneighbourliness, transparency, establishing harmony, mutual understanding andcooperation and facilitating peaceful resolution of disputes among them” (Paragraph 7).As with any compromise, the DoC suffered from weaknesses. First, as the namesuggests, the Declaration is neither a binding treaty nor a formal code of conduct. Assuch, the DoC lacks teeth. It does not enumerate sanctions in the event of infringements. Nor, in keeping with China’s insistence, is the geographical scope of the agreementarticulated (neither the Paracels nor Spratlys are mentioned by name). However, inParagraph 10 the signatories agree to work towards the goal of a formal code of conduct.Second, while the DoC urges claimants not to occupy uninhabited features and buildstructures on them, it does not prevent them from upgrading existing facilities andstructures. Third, the DoC is not inclusive: Taiwan, which occupies the largest island inthe Spratlys, was not invited to sign as part of China’s policy of limiting Taipei’sinternational space.Despite these three flaws the DoC did at least represent a political commitment byall the signatories to mitigate tensions, freeze the status quo in terms of occupied features, pursue confidence building measures (CBMs) and work towards a binding agreement inthe future. In the years immediately following the conclusion of the DoC tensions didindeed seem to relax. Although the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam accusedeach other of violating the “self restraint” clause by upgrading structures and conductingtourist cruises around the disputed features, no major incidents occurred.
 The most tangible CBM to emerge from the DoC was an agreement reached inSeptember 2004 between the national oil companies of the Philippines and China toconduct “pre-exploration” studies in the Spratlys to identify areas for oil and gasexploration. Vietnam was initially opposed to the agreement but after talks with thePhilippines joined the agreement in March 2005. Under the Joint Marine SeismicUndertaking (JMSU), the state-owned energy companies of the Philippines, China andVietnam agreed to jointly prospect for oil and gas deposits in the disputed waters of theSouth China Sea over a three year period beginning on 1 July 2005. The JMSU was givena mixed reception. At the official level, the agreement was widely praised. Philippine

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