Harsh words over the South China SeaPosted: 09/08/2012
By Christian Le Miere, Research Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security
The silly season is upon us, meaning that many media stories that aren’t about the London 2012 Olympics are tinged with flippancy. It’s tempting to chalk up a recent People’s Daily article to this tendency. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be what lay behind the piece, which in undiplomatic language suggested that the Chinese were ‘entirely entitled to shout at the United States, “Shut up”’.
The article was in fact a protest at a US Department of State statement the day before, and followed a busy month for observers of the South China Sea. That US statement criticised China’s creation in late July of a new prefecture-level city administration for all of the islands in the South China Sea. The city authority, based on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel Islands, is named Sansha and has all the trappings of any average Chinese city: a mayor, a municipal people’s congress and, somewhat more controversially, a military garrison.
The garrison does not necessarily mean a great increase in military equipment on the 2.5 sq km Woody Island (called Yongxing in China and Phu Lam in Vietnam). China already maintains a military presence on the island, sustained by a 2.7 km airstrip (pictured above) built in 1990 and three artificial harbours on the island’s west. But it does add another layer of military bureaucracy to the region, with the garrison subordinate to the Hainan Military Command, rather than the South Sea Fleet to which the current Paracel Islands detachment reports.
Beijing has designated Sansha as an administrative centre for both the Paracel Islands (also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan) and the Spratly Islands (to which the Philippines and others partially lay claim). Manila, which objects to Sansha, is in negotiations with Japan to acquire 12 patrol boats by 2014 for its coast guard, as it aims to bolster its frankly derisory maritime capabilities. The Philippine Navy accepted the second of two former US Coast Guard cutters in May this year.
The Philippines also offered three new contracts for hydrocarbon exploration in the Spratlys area in late July (following 12 offered in April), two of them in waters disputed with China.
In June, China had invited overseas firms to tender for blocks in waters claimed by Vietnam, including waters that are already being explored by India’s ONGC Videsh in Block 128. ONGC confirmed in July that it would continue to explore in the block after Vietnam offered more favourable terms.
This combination of diplomatic, administrative, military/paramilitary and commercial developments in the region is a reminder that the waters still churn with tension, and increasingly major external powers, in India, Japan and the US, have an avowed interest in the South China Sea.
Attempts are being made to calm the situation: on 9 July ASEAN agreed to a code of conduct that it is now negotiating with China. This would follow the 2002 Declaration of Conduct signed by ASEAN and China, but the code would, by contrast, be legally binding.
There is little sign yet that the code of conduct will be substantive enough to limit continued expansion of current occupations or lead to genuine discussions over sovereignty. So, in the long term, the possibility of conflict in the sea remains.
Nonetheless, should the Code be agreed upon by the twenty-first ASEAN summit in November as planned, it should help to restrain the various actors in the short term. And that should at least prevent the summer’s silly season from descending into a winter of discontent.