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Background Brief: South China Sea Tensions: What Role for ASEAN, the United States and the United Nations? Carlyle A. Thayer August 24, 2012
[client name deleted] We are preparing a report about disputed islands in South/East China Sea particularly the Spratly islands in Philippines. We would like your assessment on this issue to update our understanding of the disputes and flash points in the South China Sea area and what might happen in the future. Please offer your assessment of the concerns about the latest tension as it seems Chinese government increasing their troops into the area. COMMENT: China’s Central Military Commission approved the creation of a military garrison on Woody Island in the Paracels. There is as yet no evidence this has led to any major deployment of troops, warships or aircraft. Woody Island is too small to base a significant force. This decision was more likely made to signal China’s seriousness. China has a major naval base at Hainan Island that would serve for operations in the South China Sea. Q1. - I understand that Philippines government is seeking help from ASEAN but it seems like they do little thing about it. What do you think about that? ANSWER: ASEAN foreign ministers did agree on the key principles of a Code of Conduct COC) for the South China Sea at their most recent ministerial meeting. This was overshadowed by the dispute over the wording of a single paragraph in a joint communique that prevented the release of the joint communique. The Philippines received political support from Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Cambodia was the only real opponent. The other members of ASEAN sat on the fence. The diplomatic intervention after by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa restored ASEAN unity behind a common position on the South China Sea. ASEAN is not committed to intensify its discussions on the COC and enter into discussions with China. It was significant that Marty Natalegawa went to Manila first during his shuttle diplomacy. ASEAN is in no position to provide meaningful military support to the Philippines. The Philippines and Vietnam have entered into discussions about joint patrols. Q2. - And should the Philippines government seek help from the UN or U.S.? if yes or no, why?
2 ANSWER: At the moment there is no credible threat to peace and security that would warrant consideration by the United Nations, particularly the Security Council. UN agencies have figured in Philippine diplomacy only with respect to providing a dispute settlement mechanism. The UN Convention on Law of the Sea has provision for an International Tribunal for Law of the Sea. But this can only resolve disputes over sovereign jurisdiction – who owns resources at sea on the sea bed. Sovereignty disputes – who owns lands and islands and rocks – can only be resolved by the parties directly concerned in the dispute. They could, if both were agreeable, take their disputes to the International Court of Justice or similar body. This is unlikely because China would not consent. The Philippines is seeking and getting support from the United States. The Philippines is starting from a very low point militarily as it has not given priority to the navy or air force. The US has provided two former Coast Guard cutters. The US will provide coastal radar and assist in maritime domain awareness – knowing what is going on in the Philippines waters. The US will not support the Philippines claims and the US is cautioning the Philippines from rash acts that would provoke China. Q3. - What do you think it will be a good solution to prevent disputes? What the future plan should be? ANSWER: The elements of a good solution have been around for many years. The key ingredient that is missing is the political will to implement these elements. The core of the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and subsequent declarations has been for the parties to pledge to refrain from the use or threat of force and to exercise self-restraint so as not to provoke another party. The next step would be for all parties to agree to put their sovereignty claims to one side and to engage in joint cooperation “without prejudice to their sovereignty claims.” Highest priority should be given to protecting the dwindling fish stock. The next area would be joint exploration and development of hydrocarbon resources. Q. 4 - Do you have any idea on how many Philippines troops are patrolling near the area at the moment? ANSWER: The PH (Philippine (Navy) is extraordinarily small with only 2 frigates and eleven corvettes. The Philippines is a huge archipelagic state and the navy is spread far and wide. During the recent standoff at Scarborough Shoal the Philippines deployed only two vessels, a Coast Guard cutter and a fishery administration ship. In sum, the Philippines could only deploy a miniscule force in the best of times and they would be outnumbered by more modern Chinese ships that regularly operate in the area. Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea Tensions: What Role for ASEAN, the United States and the United Nations? ,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 24, 2012. Thayer Consultancy Background Briefs are archived and may be accessed at: http://www.scribd.com/carlthayer.