Sea dispute a test of China's ties with Asean

CONFLICTING maritime territorial claims in East Asia will be a key source of tensions in the decade ahead. While most of China's land boundary disputes have been settled on terms favourable to China's neighbours, except for its continuing disputes with India and Bhutan, its maritime boundaries in the East China and South China Seas are contested.

China has traditionally been a continental power focused on its landward Eurasian border. However, a resurgent China in the 21st century will pay increasing attention to its maritime space as its gaze turns eastwards to the United States, the dominant 20th century power, and Japan, which it has overtaken economically but with whom China has had a difficult relationship, bedevilled by memories of Japan's role as a colonial power and the trauma of its experiences during World War II. The Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands will be the most intractable maritime issue in East Asia because of this historical baggage.

In response to a United Nations submission by Vietnam and Malaysia over their continental shelf boundary, China reiterated its territorial claims and submitted a map with "nine dash lines" enclosing most of the South China Sea. This was the first time the map was circulated as a UN document, although it was based on a 1947 Kuomintang government map. The Chinese move unsettled several Asean states, especially the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, which have competing claims.

This map is widely circulated in China, appears prominently in many government buildings and is now reproduced in Chinese passports. The Chinese public believes that the entire area falls within China's territorial waters if the highly charged comments on the Internet are indicative of wider opinion. The failure by knowledgeable Chinese international lawyers and foreign policymakers to publicly clarify its position on the South China Sea has increased apprehensions.

China's public assertion of historical rights is not sustainable under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), although the claim to sovereignty over the rocks and islands within the line could be consistent with Unclos. Chinese naval and fishery protection vessels have patrolled waters within the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of claimant states. China has offered leases on petroleum exploration blocks within Vietnam's EEZ even though China cannot claim an EEZ overlapping with these areas extending from islands represented by its map.

Because of these developments, Asean meetings continue to be distracted by the South China Sea issue. At the Asean Phnom Penh summit on Nov 18, the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said that there was an agreement not to internationalise the issue. Left unchallenged, such an agreement would reflect the Chinese position on the issue. However, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia submitted letters formally disagreeing with this view and the chairman's final statement did not contain such a reference.

If the Cambodian delegation had insisted on its version, the likely outcome would have been a repeat of the Asean ministerial meeting in July, which failed for the first time in Asean's 45-year history to issue a joint communique. Cambodia had objected to the inclusion of a reference to the South China Sea disputes as it argued that Asean did not discuss bilateral issues. Ironically, Cambodia had raised its own bilateral border dispute with Thailand over land surrounding the Preah Vihear temple the previous year. It had obtained a standalone Asean foreign ministers' statement on the issue and a reference in the chairman's statement of the 19th Asean summit. As a great power, China's preference is for bilateral negotiations, where it exercises greater leverage.

While China enjoys excellent ties with Asean, it has referred to Asean/China and Asean Plus Three (China, Japan, South Korea) as 10+1 and 10+3 meetings, highlighting China's approach of dealing with Asean members bilaterally. Attempts to nudge China towards adjudication of maritime boundary disputes by the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea will not succeed. In ratifying the UN Law of the Sea Convention, China opted out of compulsory binding dispute settlement. Instead, Asean and China have focused on developing norms, building mutual confidence and promoting cooperative behaviour, as seen in the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

The approach has been to avoid addressing the territorial claims at the Asean level, which will be taken up bilaterally by the parties directly concerned. Asean attention is now on engaging with China on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. This will focus on issues such as the prevention of incidents at sea, crisis management, confidence building measures and encouraging joint development. But progress is likely to be slow.

While a grand package should be envisaged, it is timely to move first on the implementation of confidence building measures. These include increasing exchanges and discussions at a non-official level aimed at reducing misperceptions and encouraging mutual confidence, establishing a hotline at the operational level between navies and coast guard units of regional states, agreeing on prior notification of military exercises in the South China Sea and facilitating the rescue at sea of people and vessels in distress.

Provocative gestures such as China's decision to include its "nine dash lines" map in new passports should be avoided. All claimant states are also guilty of occupying uninhabited islands and land features. They should agree to refrain from doing so. The aim should be to strengthen crisis management capabilities and to lay the groundwork for agreement on rules and procedures aimed at defusing tensions.

Despite the challenges posed by the conflicting South China Sea claims, China is now a major engine of growth for the Asean region. The Asean-China Free Trade Area is the world's largest in terms of population and the third largest in terms of nominal GDP. At the East Asian Summit held on Nov 20, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao also acknowledged China's willingness to increase dialogue and enhance cooperation with Asean members in the security and strategic fields.

From a Chinese perspective, the management of its relationship with Asean is critical. As a resurgent power with an increasingly global presence, many states will be watching how China deals with its neighbours. Lessons will be drawn on the impact for them of a rising China.

The writer is dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.