South China Sea: How We Got to This Stage

May 9, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaSouth China SeaHistoryDefenseNaval Power

South China Sea: How We Got to This Stage

Understanding the source of the tension

In late April of 1997, the Philippine Navy landed on Huangyan Island, blew up the territory monument that China had erected, and planted a flag of the Philippines on the island. China reacted by sending marine surveillance ships to the waters of the island, which faced a standoff with Philippine warships that did not ease until a few days later on May 3. In subsequent years, the Philippines expelled, arrested and even shot at Chinese fishermen passing through the waters near Huangyan Island.

On May 9, 1999, the Philippine Navy deliberately ran its landing craft BRP Sierre Madre (LT-57) aground at Ren'ai Shoal, using hull leak repair as an excuse, and stayed there with regular rotated soldiers, refusing to withdraw ever since. China reacted with a series of strong diplomatic representations to no avail. On November 3 of the same year, the Philippine Navy repeated the behavior by running another decommissioned warship aground at Huangyan Island on the pretext of cabin leakage, blocking the southeast entrance to its lagoon. Already immune to this old trick, China applied great diplomatic pressure on Manila. On November 29, the then Philippine President Joseph Estrada ordered the withdrawal of the vessel.

Following the incident, the Chinese government, with a view to stopping the dispute from boiling over and maintaining the sound China-ASEAN partnership, resorted to all-round diplomatic efforts on the consultations with countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and especially the Philippines. Then, the tension began to ease. In March 1999, the working group on the development of confidence-building measures held their first meeting in Manila, at which both sides agreed, after multiple consultations, to exercise restraint and refrain from taking any action that may escalate disputes.

Meanwhile, ASEAN also follow closely on the situation in the South China Sea, and held multiple discussions with China. There was also a “Track 1.5” closed-door dialogue on the disputes participated by all the relevant parties including not only from mainland China but also Taiwan. An important consensus coming out of these dialogues was that to address the disputes over the sovereignty of the Nansha Islands, which were complicated and had no easy solutions, all parties concerned should resort to peaceful talks. China’s “setting aside disputes” proposal proved the most feasible option. They also acknowledged that as no delimitation of maritime boundaries would be possible without settling sovereignty disputes over islands and reefs in question, thus maintaining ambiguity on the maritime claims might be the best choice for the moment. These ideas and proposals provided the basis for future consensus between China and ASEAN. Adopted at the 1998 ASEAN Summit with an aim to enhance regional integration, the Hanoi Plan of Action proposed that efforts should be made to "establish a regional code of conduct in the South China Sea among the parties directly concerned".[viii] In order to promote confidence-building and good-neighborly friendship, China agreed in principle to start consultations with the ASEAN countries on a “code of conduct”. [ix]

An informal consultation was held between China and the ASEAN countries in Thailand on March 15, 2000, and "the code of conduct" documents respectively drafted by both sides were exchanged and discussed. However, due to considerable different views on its binding powers among the parties, and China and Vietnam’s differences on the areas it should cover, the drafting process did not go very well, and subsequent consultations yielded no substantial outcome.

With a view to diffuse the standoff, Malaysia proposed to replace "the code of conduct" with a compromising and non-binding "declaration" at the 35th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei in July 2002. The motion was approved by the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, and a joint statement was published after the meeting, stating that ASEAN and China would work closely together to make "the declaration" a reality. [x] Several months later, a consultation on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) was held in place of a consolation on "the code of conduct", where both sides engaged in many rounds of difficult negotiations. At the 8th ASEAN Summit convened in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 4, 2002, Mr. Wang Yi, then Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Ministers of the ten ASEAN Member States jointly signed the DOC.

In the DOC, which contains ten provisions, the parties recognize the need to promote a peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment in the South China Sea; undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; reaffirm their respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea; undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner; and agree to work, on the basis of consensus, towards the eventual attainment of the document’s objective. [xi] The focus throughout the negotiations was on the disputes over the sovereignty of the Nansha islands and reefs. Much attention was directed to preventing escalation of disputes and the main purpose of the DOC was to prevent further act of occupying and controlling islands.

It is worth noting that right before the signing of the DOC, opinions divided about what name to use referring to the disputed areas. Most ASEAN Member States wanted to use the expression of “Spratly Islands”, while having no objection to China using “Nansha Islands”. However, Vietnam insisted using “the Hoang Sa Islands” and “the Truong Sa Islands” (respectively referring to the Xisha Islands and the Nansha Islands) as a way to assert its stance. And this violated China’s bottom line, as China had never admitted the existence of any dispute in the Xisha Islands, nor had the consultations touch upon those islands. Eventually, in the hope of breaking the long deadlock and maximizing common interests, China agreed to use a more ambiguous expression —"the South China Sea", for example "Parties in the South China Sea", "the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea" and "code of conduct in the South China Sea". Description about islands disputes were also vaguely rendered as "refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features", without specific mention to the Nansha Islands. The DOC played a vital role in diffusing disputes in the Nansha Islands and maintaining regional stability, but its ambiguous renderings of features in dispute sowed the seeds for turning the local territorial disputes to a more generalized maritime issue. The concepts of “disputes over islands” and “maritime disputes” became confusingly mixed up. Driven by other factors, disputes over portions of the Nansha Islands and delimitation of their surrounding waters gradually ballooned into an overall South China Sea issue.

Shortly after the Cold War, the US remained committed to its previous policy of not taking sides on the legitimacy of territorial claims, emphasizing that the disputes should be peacefully resolved, and that the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea should be maintained. As Asia was not the focal point of the US’s global policy at that time, the occasional heating up of disputes over the Nansha Islands did not move the US to change its neutral stance. It stressed that parties concerned should settle territorial disputes through peaceful means. [xii]


A Decade with Tensions Simmering under the Surface

In nearly ten years after the introduction of the DOC, China was the only keen abider of the document. It refrained from taking actions that might escalate the dispute in the South China Sea, and kept pushing for peace and cooperation and joint development in disputed areas. By contrast, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and some other ASEAN countries were half-hearted about the DOC. They kept on transforming and expanding occupied islands, reinforcing their administrative management of them, and accelerated the development of oil and gas in surrounding waters. They also made occasional arrests of Chinese fishermen working in these waters. One common efforts of these countries is to solidify their illegal occupation and extend the territorial dispute to the maritime sphere. What they were trying to do was more of denying the existence of the disputes than shelving them. This continuously enraged the Chinese public and media, eliciting sustained attention.

Vietnam was the most active violator of the DOC. For example, in April 2003, it held a commemoration to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the "Liberation of the Nansha Islands". In June, it signed a secret pact with Indonesia on the delimitation of continental shelf under the South China Sea. In April 2004, it organized the first commercial tour to the Nansha Islands. In early 2005, it published a revised map of Vietnam, which included China's Xisha and Nansha Islands into its Khanh Hoa Province. In early 2006, Vietnam and Malaysia set up a navy hot-line to coordinate resource development and settlement of their disputes about the Chinese islands. In April, it started another bidding round for oil blocks in surrounding waters, and announced cooperation with a third party on building natural gas transmission pipelines in the Nansha Islands. In May 2007, it conducted an extensive geological survey in surrounding waters using a charted foreign surveying ship; a month later, it held elections of "National Assembly representatives" on some of the occupied Nansha islands.