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Speaking Of Asia

Deceptive lull in South China Sea

Larger Asian states asserting themselves and involvement of outside powers bear watching

One year after the international arbitration tribunal at The Hague resoundingly ruled against China's claim to most of the South China Sea it would seem that Beijing has prevailed with its firm stand on the issue and refusal to acknowledge the ruling, much less abide by it.

On Woody Island in the Paracels, which it wrested from Vietnam in 1974 and is a place that also is claimed by Taiwan, a modern cinema theatre has just been opened. Elsewhere, more lethal equipment has been installed. New facts continue to be created on the ground unchallenged.

This week came news that Beijing had managed to stare down Vietnam and forced it to reverse a decision allowing the Spanish company Repsol to drill in waters around the Spratlys. According to the BBC, China threatened attack on Vietnam-occupied features if the drilling did not stop.

A similar tough conversation seems to have taken place in Beijing in May when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte informed Chinese President Xi Jinping that he intended to drill for oil in the South China Sea. This week, after Mr Duterte said a "partner" had been found to drill in Reed Bank, within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country is open to joint exploration in the disputed waters.

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The easy interpretation is that China has once again scored a walkover victory. With no serious challengers to its power, it looks poised for a period of extended dominance.

The lull, if it is that, may be deceptive.

ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

For one thing, Vietnam is fully aware of two key events looming in the Asian calendar: China's 19th party congress, and the Apec summit it is itself to host. To dial down things a mite makes perfect sense, both as a nod to Mr Xi, as well as smoothing the way for a successful Apec summit.

Yet, two other exploration projects in the Vietnamese EEZ seem to be proceeding: the Blue Whale Project with ExxonMobil, the company formerly helmed by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and another with India's ONGC Videsh Limited, or OVL.

The OVL exploration project makes an interesting case study. OVL was first commissioned in 2006. It abandoned the field a few years later, apparently under Chinese pressure, even though the Indian navy chief had said his force would offer protection to the platform. At the time, it cited commercial reasons for its decision.

OVL now seems to have agreed to a fifth contract extension. Interestingly, it was announced days after Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh's visit to New Delhi, where, according to an official statement, the two sides discussed "concrete and feasible" steps to protect their interests.

There could be many reasons for India's front-foot play in East Asia; keeping China distracted in the South China Sea and delaying its inevitable march into the Indian Ocean could be one. Irritation at China's strategic support for Pakistan could be another. Last September, India elevated its ties with Vietnam from "strategic partnership" to "comprehensive strategic partnership".

Equally, it is possible that New Delhi has calculated that it is time to draw a line in the sand, never mind the costs.

As in the case of its own ongoing border stand-off with China, triggered by the Indian Army blocking the People's Liberation Army's attempt to build a road through territory claimed by Bhutan, New Delhi is surely aware that smaller Asian states are watching its actions closely for signs of continued resolve.

It is commonly believed in South-east Asia that former US President Barack Obama's failure to hold Mr Xi to his promise of not militarising the South China Sea probably contributed to Beijing's subsequent assertive behaviour in those waters.

Against that background it is not surprising that South-east Asia's largest nation, Indonesia, also has stirred to life on the issue.

POWERS WITHIN THE REGION AND WITHOUT

Jakarta has long denied it is a party to the dispute, and indeed China makes no claims on any of its islands. But the EEZ is another matter and last year, caused frictions after the Chinese Coast Guard intervened to free a poaching vessel impounded by the Indonesian authorities within their territorial waters.

On July 14 , Indonesia announced that the waters off its northern end would be called the North Natuna Sea, adding a fourth name to a stretch of water that is now variously called South China Sea, East Sea and West Philippine Sea, depending on who is saying it.

Diplomatic sources say the Indonesian government has been referring to the area by this name in internal documents for months but decided to go public with it after careful consideration. Interestingly, in justifying the move, which came two weeks after a meeting between Mr Obama and Indonesian President Joko Widodo last month, Jakarta made reference to the Hague tribunal's ruling. With a presidential election looming in Indonesia, Mr Joko cannot seem to be quailing from defending the national interest.

Forces beyond the region are going to be critical as well in coming months. United States President Donald Trump's policy towards the region is taking on a more muscular character than ever before. Partly this is because Mr Trump has little of the patience, or trust in diplomacy, that characterised his cerebral predecessor. Indeed, some US news reports say that he has given an all too willing US Pacific Command sanction for elevated US naval engagement in the South China Sea.

Since this comes in the wake of his deteriorating relations with China's Mr Xi over the latter's inability to rein in North Korea, Beijing's immediate priority is to make sure that it stays out of Mr Trump's way. Hence, its nervousness that should Mr Trump attack North Korea, it could lead to a situation where its own troops come face to face with the US military on the Korean peninsula.

The US aside, the behaviour of other outside powers such as Japan, India and to an extent, Australia, could influence events.

Two US carriers, an Indian carrier and a Japanese helicopter carrier - a euphemism for a carrier that can host vertical take-off and landing aircraft - have just concluded the biggest ever war games in the Bay of Bengal. Late last month, the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg conducted a freedom of navigation sail through the South China Sea in the company of US, Australian and Japanese ships, shadowed throughout by Chinese vessels. There is a good chance that Australia will join the US-India-Japan trilateral exercises next year, reviving the "Quad" that so upset Beijing a decade ago.

Canada, as well as the European Union, has been knocking at the doors of the East Asia Summit, and may well gain entry in the near future. Yesterday, Britain said it would likely send a warship to the region next year to conduct freedom of navigation passages.

With so many influential voices taking an interest in the neighbourhood, small claimant states in the South China Sea dispute will likely gain more courage to assert their own positions. That goes even for the Philippines, which has trodden a noticeably soft line with China under President Duterte, despite the arbitral ruling going overwhelmingly in its favour. China is not unaware of this. It recognises that Filipino interests are too closely tied to America's for it to be weaned away from that orbit for too long. For now, though, it is happy to humour Mr Duterte and play along.

For South-east Asia, the months ahead offer a window for reflection. This year's Asean leaders' summit looks certain to be overshadowed by worry over the Korean peninsula, which means the South China Sea will probably take a back seat, perhaps to the relief of all.

After that it is Singapore's turn to lead the grouping - coincidentally, it takes the chair at a time it also is the designated coordinator for the Asean-China relationship. Then it is Thailand before the chair moves to Vietnam in 2020.

Every leader in the area knows that while they need to find a via media with China, excessive emollience towards the regional overlord could lead to increasingly untenable demands to accommodate its interests.

China may have bought itself some breathing room but by no means can it think the South China Sea genie has been bottled successfully.

Failure to adhere to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea led to the current situation. Since then, things have moved along so much that only a high quality code of conduct in the South China Sea - scrupulously followed by all - would be of any value.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2017, with the headline 'Deceptive lull in South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe