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  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 6:48am
CommentInsight & Opinion

China-bashing over South China Sea disputes will further endanger peace

Mark Valencia says alarming flare-ups in the South China Sea over territorial disputes between China and its neighbours are not solely Beijing's fault, as some are hypocritically claiming

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 May, 2014, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 3:37am

China-bashers in Southeast Asia, Japan and the US are having a field day. Indeed, China is getting hammered by a perfect storm of its own clumsy public relations, its actions and reactions, and what China perceives as the harmonised public diplomacy strategy of its detractors. However, the situation is more complex and nuanced than journalists and "experts" would have it.

More worryingly, this campaign is set to end badly, probably with a smarting, angry and relatively politically isolated China. That will not be good for peace and stability in the South China Sea, or the region as a whole.

The latest imbroglio involves China's placement of an oil rig within Vietnam's claimed 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and on its claimed continental shelf. Vietnam has protested vehemently and sent coastguard and police vessels to the site to prevent the rig from drilling.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has called China's move "provocative", while Japanese officials have also criticised it. However, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations - which is closer to the situation and its ramifications - has not blamed China, at least not directly or collectively, despite lobbying by both Vietnam and the Philippines for it to do so.

China's unilateral action has certainly raised tensions and probably violates the spirit if not the letter of the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, particularly the provision stating that "the parties concerned 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 recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea".

Notably, the declaration says disputes such as those between China and Vietnam, and China and the Philippines, should be resolved between "sovereign states directly concerned". China believes the Philippines has violated this provision and that Vietnam may be on the verge of doing so.

This means there is a fundamental disagreement on the meaning of the declaration's key provisions.

Moreover, the declaration is, after all, a non-binding political stopgap measure to contain a festering dispute, and has been violated by almost all South China Sea claimants at one time or another.

Further, China would probably argue that, in any case, the declaration does not apply to the nearby Paracel Islands.

China has occupied, inhabited and administered the Paracels at least since 1974 when its forces defeated the South Vietnamese forces there. China thus has a claim - based on the UN Law of the Sea - to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf from the islands. Vietnam disputes Chinese sovereignty over the islands. This means the dispute is probably not the result of a claim by China outside the UN convention, such as its infamous nine-dash line, but a sovereignty claim and boundary dispute solely between China and Vietnam.

This type of disagreement cannot be solved by recourse to the UN dispute settlement mechanism.

It is indeed questionable whether the Paracels can or would generate a full exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. But that has to be determined - not assumed. The Paracels may well have some effect on the placement of a boundary. For what it is worth, the oil rig is situated 17 nautical miles from Triton island in the Paracels and is certainly on China's side of a median line between the Paracels and Vietnam's coast.

Unfortunately, China has chosen not to make clear the basis of its claim. China does not recognise Vietnam's claim to the Paracels. It obviously assumes there is no question regarding its right to drill there and thus has simply proceeded to do so.

According to the UN arbitral tribunal's decision in the Guyana-Suriname case, such unilateral actions would be a breach of the obligations under the Law of the Sea "to make every effort to enter into provisional arrangements of a practical nature" and "not to jeopardise or hamper efforts to reach a final agreement". In the Guyana-Suriname case, the tribunal found that both parties had violated this provision. This may be the case here, too.

Moreover, if ramming by ships is a "use of force", then both parties appear to have violated the UN Charter, the Law of the Sea, the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in Southeast Asia and the Asean declaration on conduct. The two ideological soulmates need to go back to the negotiating table and work out a provisional arrangement of a practical nature.

By the same token, the May 6 arrest and detention of a Chinese crew and vessel near the disputed Spratly Islands may also be a violation of the Law of the Sea and the Asean declaration.

The point is that all parties in these disputes share some blame. But the US and even Japan have heaped hyperbole and hypocritical criticism on China. US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel has said "we oppose any act of intimidation by vessels particularly in disputed areas". This could apply to both countries, but was clearly aimed at China.

Meanwhile, China views the actions by Vietnam and the Philippines as provocations encouraged by the US. Some may argue - as Beijing does - that these disputes are none of Washington's business.

Others say China's action, coming so soon after President Barack Obama's "reassurance" visit to the region, is a direct challenge to US credibility. This may be reading too much into it. But what makes such criticism particularly annoying to China is that it comes on the heels of a barrage of hypocritical attacks regarding China's declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea.

To China, this spate of attacks in the Western press seems part of a preconceived plan to demonise it with the intent to isolate it. Hopefully, cooler heads within governments will prevail and this latest clash of wills will be worked out peacefully. But for those who really want an angry and isolated China, and eventually perhaps war - and there are influential warmongers on all sides - this cacophony of China-bashing is certainly setting the stage.

Mark J. Valencia is a maritime policy analyst in Kaneohe, Hawaii

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This article is now closed to comments

Mikado
Behind the China-bashing over the South China Sea is basically the Vietnamese and Filipinos supported by the US and Japan. Just like in Ukraine, whenever there is US meddling violence immediately breaks out.
captam
China's claim to control of all these disputed territories has a much longer historic and valid foundation than a mere "punch-up" forty years ago. For centuries the whole of the Indo-China region was comprised of vassal states of China and regional rulers all sent tribute to the Chinese Emperor. The country now called "Vietnam" was very much under direct Chinese suzerainty until the French colonialists started stealing the territory progressively beginning with Cochin-China in 1862 , Tonkin in 1874 and Annam in 1883. China fought back against this French aggression in 1884 but lost. At the very least today's Vietnam ( whose own population's loyalties have been split, having been poisoned by the Americans during the Vietnam War) should accept China as a powerful neighbour who is owed respect. Befriending them would be very much in their long term economic and security interests. If there is oil under those shoals a deal to share the spoils could be struck. It is the right-wing military ascendency of Japan ( yes again!) that Vietnam should be wary of.
Jonathan Smith
The Vietnamese are thugs and criminals and should be dealt with accordingly.
321manu
Mr. Valencia is basically trying to answer the chicken-egg conundrum when it comes to "provocations" in the region. If a provocative move by one party is simply a response to a provocative move by the other, then where does it end, or where did it begin? It is a question that is likely impossible to answer...but the answer is also pointless. At this point, after numerous provocations and counter-provocations, who cares where it started? The adult thing to do would be to not make another provocative move, while attempts at resolution are ongoing.
So what does China do? It puts up an oil rig. As a provocative move, it's a good one. And if that's what China is going to do, she should own it. There's really no need nor justification for apologists to suggest that China is being picked on, after she pokes her finger in Vietnam's eye.
And as usual, it's priceless when apologists claim "bashing" whenever there is criticism of China...even when it is in response to one of those provocative moves that the author seems to advise against.
I Gandhi
Thanks to US bashing of China we now see violence in Vietnam. Everywhere the US goes it stirs up hatred and conflicts. No wonder the Arabs who have been on the receiving ends from US violence came up with a 911.
wkyken
Let's go back to how all this started, Mr. Valencia. China is acting like a two-year-old with a dozen cookies/biscuits. "All mine!" They have shown no respect to any other country's sovereignty in the South China Sea. Is it any wonder the situation has reached this point? No, all the other countries are doing is reacting to China's jolting claim. Why has Asean not spoken up? They simply don't have the backbone to stand up to China. The only way this firestorm of criticism will go away is to have multilateral negotiations. Bring everyone to the table and talk about it. But don't count on that ever happening. China insists on not sharing any of the cookies. What reaction did you expect?
321manu
Now you're just not making sense. But as a CCP apologist, I'm sure that is a position you're very familiar with.
On the other hand, one (1) entire comment without a reference to the US of A. So it can be done!
Anyway, they should have a Vegas line on the over/under of when Taiwan "possibly" will reunite with PRC. Just sayin'.
On a separate note, as a sociological case study, some bright mind should investigate why CCP apologists characterize any and all criticism of China as "bashing". Is it some deep-seated need to play the victim? Is legitimate criticism of China still considered "bashing", as XYZ asks?
ianson
It appears Valencia's starting point for China's claim of sovereignty is its armed invasion just 40 years ago. A flimsier basis for asserting rights over islands so much closer to Vietnam than China is hard to imagine. The CCP's entire approach has been just to bully its way into them, earning the justifiable indignation of its neighbours.
baysidedweller
"More worryingly, this campaign is set to end badly" - but I did not see in the article who is going to be the loser? China?
I think in this instance, US and Japan have to refrain from adding fuel to the already tense situation.
The Obama's past trip to Asia was a failure and I think he knows it. He was the first president to publicly acknowledged that the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands falls under article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty while not getting the signed TPP in return from Japan. By Obama's action and Kerry's "provocative" slogan, Vietnam and the Phillippines are emboldened to commit the acts that infuriated China.
Unfortunately the rioters in Vietnam are not the smartest people. Instead of selectively targeting mainland Chinese, they mainly trashed businesses that are owned by the Taiwanese and now they are also at odds with Taiwan.
How About
It's that incident when South Vietnam was still a USA proxy; and 20 years before that Japan returned all occupied islands to China including Xisha. But uptil then it's hunky-dory to USA because they thought or wanted to stick it out that ROC Taiwan was China. Then came Joe MaCarthy, Korean War etc.
.
From 50s to 72 they backed Taiwan to confront China until Nixon's trip. Now it appears no matter what they do, Taiwan is going to dialogue with PRC possibly re-unite with PRC, shock horror- all of the rosy territories China aka ROC had from 60 years ago can not go to the PRC. If USA or their crony can't have it, nobody else shall? If you are ever interested how good USA is at propaganda research the VP election of Harry Truman. The hypocrisy of USA is simply criminal or shall we say - political.
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