The South China is bordered by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines and Taiwan. The sea holds important shipping routes and possible oil and gas reserves. Because of its strategic importance and unconfirmed riches, maritime border disputes abound. All have competing territorial claims, with China claiming almost the entire sea. Skirmishes have risen to a pitch in 2011. Vietnam and Philippines have carried out naval exercises to demonstrate their strength to China and that they wont be intimidated by Chinese might. [Arms and defense purchases made by them is to maintain some balance vis-à-vis China].
The smaller countries are all wary of China and very conscious of its growing military might. Therefore stress has been laid on negotiating with it. These countries have sought to negotiate under the aegis of the ASEAN as this gives them a better bargaining pitch. China on the other hand favours bilateral negotiations of sovereignty disputes (which wouldn’t be a favourable to the others as it weakens them before a power who is crucial to their economies). China has declared this sea as a “core national interest”- this term has been used for Tibet and Taiwan- meaning that China will not humour any questioning or softening of its policy on the issue.
ASEAN negotiations with China over the South-China Sea have been ongoing for some time. In the past decade China in its bid to strengthen economic linkages with ASEAN played down its claim on the sea. It was during this time that the ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’ 2002 was signed, which has not been very successfully implemented. However China’s assertion to the sea has increased in the past year. Now (in July 2011) ASEAN is deliberating to evolve a “code of conduct” (in the South China Sea), which can then be negotiated with China.
However tensions are not confined to China and its neighbours. China and the US too have had skirmishes over territory violations. The US insists that this sea should be an open waterway, open to international navigation. Additionally the smaller ASEAN countries have sought US to put pressure on China to resolve these disputed through dialogue and not hegemony. The US concurs with the ASEAN view of resolving disputes through dialogue. Further, Vietnam is seeking closer military cooperation with US to balance out China; the US has stationed the ‘Seventh Fleet’ (a naval fleet) in the area. The ASEAN countries have made it clear that they want the US to continue its presence in the South China Sea and many see it as a reliable mediator. All this has displeased the Chinese who don’t want US involvement (refer South China Sea as ‘core national interest’).
Nonetheless analysts feel that ASEAN is not powerless before China. Throughout the last decade China has invested in building trade ties with south-east Asia, and convincing its leaders that China is not a threat. With the China-ASEAN FTA, their economies are more integrated with ASEAN being China’s 3-largest trading partner. China and ASEAN share cultural ties. All this is not something China would want to risk damaging. Thus ASEAN nations do have leveraging power and resolution of these disputes amicably is the only solution.
On another note, analysts are avidly watching China’s actions in this dispute as a indicator of how it behaves as an emerging super-power. For instance, while China invokes sovereign rights and claims, US and other countries raise the issue of international rights (open waterway). So “quite apart from Beijing’s sovereignty claims to the sea, how China speaks and acts with respect to these issues—rights of passage, freedom of navigation, interpretations of customary international law—will deeply affect perceptions of its exercise of power. Secondly the South China Sea is also perceived as a ‘global common’ and by insisting that it is a bilateral issue, China is negating this aspect. Thus as China assumes greater power and say on the international stage, its attitude on this issue is likely to shape perceptions of its attitude towards global commons, and public goods”5, and consequently is it acts as a responsible super-power.
India and South-China Sea: Since India has important relations with all the involved parties it has to walk a tightrope. In an ASEAN ministerial meeting held in 2010, India reiterated the importance of dialogue and called the 2002 Agreement as a landmark one. India is hoping that the tensions will be reduced soon and dialogue started.
On another note, India is wary of China’s growing military might and is developing its military and naval capabilities. The aim is to solidify its position in the Indian Ocean and project power in the Asia-Pacific.
Also, “India is pursuing better ties with Vietnam to try to check Chinese naval influence and access to the Indian Ocean. New Delhi initiated a new security partnership with Hanoi in 2000 that emphasized defence training, supply of advanced weaponry, and the potential for India to gain access to the South China Sea through the Cam Ranh Bay naval and air base. Indian officials have long understood the importance of Vietnam in the South China Sea and its potential to balance the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The Vietnamese have demurred on granting India access to Cam Ranh Bay, and the Vietnamese–Indian security partnership remains limited.”8