Rocky patch

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2011, 12:00am

Recent decades have all seen spikes in tension in the South China Sea. The 1970s saw the People's Liberation Army drive off the navy of then-South Vietnam from the southern Paracels, to complete China's occupation of the grouping, as well as a reunified Vietnam's own military push into the Spratly Islands a few years later.

Then, in 1988, China's naval ships took six of those Spratly islets from the Vietnamese. By 1995, China was facing flak over building on Mischief Reef off the Philippine coast, criticism aided by Vietnam's Association of Southeast Asian Nations membership.

In recent years, tensions have built once again amid Vietnamese oil deals, regional concern over China's military modernisation and a push from various quarters, including Washington, to get the dispute back on the international agenda.

That historical perspective suggests it is unlikely that current tensions will degenerate into far nastier conflict, whatever the current sabre-rattling. But there are significant trends suggesting that this particular phase in the dispute is different and still has some way to run, diplomatically at least.

Behind the scenes, the South China Sea is getting a great deal more attention across the wider region than previously. In Beijing, for example, senior PLA officials and strategists have been debating adjustments in China's approach, fuelled in part by shifting perceptions of the region. Official and semi-official naval publications, for example, have been giving broad coverage to South China Sea challenges, particularly weapons purchases and increased oil exploitation by neighbours. The decision to rapidly expand China's maritime surveillance fleet - a civilian force designed to be less overtly provocative than the navy - is a key sign of this.

In Hanoi, meanwhile, there is a fresh and palpable determination to stand up to Beijing, and it is clear that further action by even Chinese civilian ships to halt exploration in its southern waters will be resisted - and kept on the international stage.

And whether it is Tokyo, Jakarta, Canberra, Manila or Washington, there is great deal more strategic thought given to the South China Sea, across governments and think tanks. Washington's Sinologists once rolled their eyes at the very mention of the South China Sea as an issue worthy of meaningful US attention. No longer.

In Singapore last week, for example, a closed-door session at the National University's Centre for International Law highlighted the revival of regional concerns about China's nine-dotted line, which appears to project Beijing's historic claims 1,800 kilometres deep into maritime Southeast Asia.

One of Singapore's elder statesmen, former foreign minister Professor S.Jayakumar, urged Beijing to address the ambiguities at the core of those concerns, describing the line as 'puzzling and disturbing' from a nation that stresses it respects the international Law of the Sea. 'Failure to do so could jeopardise the trust essential for any peaceful resolution and undermine all the gains of Chinese diplomacy made in the last two decades,' he said.

The South China Sea looks set to remain on the boil for some time yet.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.