IntroductionUndoubtedly, it is clear to all that China intends to become the most influential power in Southeast Asia. International analysts often connote Southeast Asia as China’s strategic backyard, while the Chinese foreign policy elites better termed it as “strategic frontier”.
Although China plays a leading role in trade and economics, however, China has often been the target of censure on the South China Sea issue. At present, the South China Sea disputes are the most problematic issue between China and Southeast Asia. The South China Sea dotted with small islands, reefs and shoals is a contested area which involves maritime claims among People’s Republic of China (PRC), Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Nine-Dashed Line: claimed by Taiwan (ROC) and then by PRC, overlaps the EEZ claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.Pratas Island: under the firm control of Taiwan.Macclesfield Bank: only claimant is China (including Taiwan).Scarborough Shoal: the Philippines lodged its territorial claim and landed into conflict with China (PRC) when the latter also claimed the same.Paracel Islands: under the control of China (PRC) though contested by Vietnam.
Spratly Islands: involves China (PRC) including Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines.The political situation in the South China Sea is complicated as it contains the potential of conflict with different national interests. The differences among the claimant states are multi-faceted:China and the regional claimant states disagree on the fundamental issue of which party has the stronger historical and legal evidence in the disputes.China and the claimant states have drastic different concerns and objectives with regard to the developments of the disputes in the long run.China and the SE Asian states have been attempting to manage the security situation in the South China Sea through different approaches.China and other disputants maintain very different views of the involvement and intervention of external powers.Even though with China’s increasing involvement in global and regional multilateral organizations from Deng Xiaoping’s era, or simply put China’s multilateralist turn in its foreign policy (praised as China’s “new diplomacy”), resolution of the South China Sea disputes have been crippled on account of China’s limited and so-called multilateralism with Chinese characteristics.
It is evident and true to the core that China still holds its emphasis on the principle of national sovereignty, which will not be jeopardized in any multilateral negotiations.The South China Sea DisputesThe 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOS Convention), commonly known as the Constitution of Oceans laid out the general legal framework of maritime security. According to this, a coastal state has the right to establish maritime zones under its jurisdiction: internal waters inside the baselines which are used to measure the extent of the territorial sea and other jurisdictional waters, the territorial sea of 12 nm, the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nm, and the continental shelf of 200 nm outward from the baselines.
The sovereignty of the coastal state over the territorial sea extends to the airspace above the territorial sea as well as to its bed and subsoil.China is a coastal state with very long coastlines, stretching more than 18,000 km. The seas adjacent to China are the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The South China Sea is bounded on the north by mainland China, on the east by the Philippine archipelago, on the south by Kalimantan, and on the west by the Malay Peninsula and Vietnam. The total area is about 3,500,000 km2 with an average of 1,212 m and maximum dept of 5,559 m. It is a semi-enclosed sea in nature, as defined by the LOS Convention (Law of the Sea).Based on the international LOS Convention, China established legal regimes for its maritime zones. China enacted the 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea, and later on regulated the 1992 Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (improved version).
According to Article 11, all international organizations, foreign organizations or individuals should obtain approval from China for carrying out scientific research, marine operations or other activities in China’s territorial sea and comply with relevant Chinese laws and regulations. Article 14 provided the right of pursuit against the foreign ship if committed violations.Main conflictAfter the entry of most of the Asian countries into LOS Convention and their corresponding laws on the maritime zones, the legal situation became more complicated threatening the peace and security of the East Asian region. In 1973 and 1988, there were 2 armed skirmishes between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea over the disputed islands. Tension aroused between China and the Philippines over Mischief Reef in 1995. During 1999 and 2000, Malaysia claimed 3 new reefs in a “stealthy” way. In June 2002, Vietnam lodged a protest against China’s live ammunition exercises in the South China Sea, but China dismissed Vietnam’s protest stating that the drill fully complied with the international law.
The Sino-Filipino conflict over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 led to the Philippines in filing an arbitration case against China to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in January 2013. Indonesian authorities recently begun to take tougher actions against Chinese fishing boats that entered into the EEZ of the Natuna Islands. In March 2016, about 100 Chinese fishing trawlers were detected near the Luconia Shoals in the South China Sea, which Malaysia claims as its EEZ. Since 2009, new disputes include fishing disputes, energy resources contentions, law enforcement activities, expansion of control and presence, legal contestations, and major power strategic rivalry.ASEAN’s responseIn response to the disputes, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members signed the Declaration on the South China Sea in 1992, which unanimously expressed their resolve to explore the possibility of cooperation in the South China Sea and to establish a code of international conduct. The most significant move by the ASEAN till time is its untiring push to adopt a code of conduct for the South China Sea. However, China was reluctant at the multilateral level and opposed the proposal to negotiate a code of conduct for the interest parties concerned during the 9th South China Sea Informal Workshop in December 1998.
But gradually, China considered negotiating a code of conduct at the regional level. On 4th November 2002, China and all ASEAN members signed the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea ie., the 2002 Declaration in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It included:Commitment to the use of LOS Convention to conduct cooperation and confidence-building.Freedom of navigation in and above the South China Sea.Promise to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without the use of threat or force.Cooperation in matters of- marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, search and rescue operation, and combating transnational crime.To be noted, Taiwan was excluded in the 2002 Declaration due to its status in the international community.
Since the signing of the 2002 Declaration, the exercise of self-restraint in the South China Sea has been evident. But on 12th July 2016, an arbitral tribunal constituted under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on LOS ruled against PRC’s “historical rights” maritime claims on the nine-dashed line in a case brought by the Philippines.Chinese MultilateralismMultilateralism can be defined as the “practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states, through ad hoc arrangements or by means of institutions”.
When China first adopted economic liberalization reforms in the 1980s, since then China has been expanding its involvement in the regional and global interstate politics, international and multilateral organizations in terms of technology transfer, trade development, foreign-investment inflow, cultural and educational exchanges. In the recent years, it has extended to economy, culture, science and technology, and also in regional and global multilateral institutions- arms control, regional security, environmental protection, intellectual property rights and human rights. Therefore, the international notion of multilateralism with its diplomacy of “Chinese characteristics” is known as Chinese multilateralism.
It is also a sort of selective multilateralism- those areas in which China does not want to be bound by multilateral diplomacy and continues to employ a bilateralist or even a unilateralist approach. China has always attempted to practice regional multilateralism to develop a collective strength against the sole hegemony ie., the US. This new Chinese multilateralism also combines with multipolarism. Thus, multilateralism does occur in China’s foreign policy but blends Chinese flavor of multipolarism in power politics with multilateral practice. However, it is equally important to note that China is keen to develop “China dominated multilateral arrangements” rather than a multilateralism that emphasizes equal coordination among the involved parties.
Some of the features of Chinese multilateralism are as follows:Multilateralism as a strategy of economic development in the era of globalization.Multilateralism as a convenient balance against the hegemonic power.Multilateralism as an image-improving measure in international society.
Multilateralism as an effective venue to address security issues.China’s claimsOfficial statementChina’s usual official statement on South China Sea disputes:-“China possesses indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters and it enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.”In response to the July 2016 ruling of the arbitration initiated by the Philippines against China, China’s clarified claims were:China has sovereignty over South China Sea Islands (Nanhai Zhudao) consisting of Pratas Islands (Dongsha Qundao), Paracels Islands (Xisha Qundao), Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha Qundao) and Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands).
China has internal waters, territorial sea and contiguous zone based on South China Sea Islands.China has an exclusive economic zone and continental shelf based on South China Sea Islands.China has historic rights in the South China Sea.Historical claimsChina asserts to have exercised its jurisdiction in the South China Sea for hundreds of years since 2nd century BCE during the Han dynasty.
It was only interrupted by the European colonial powers, followed by the Japanese during WWII. China then recovered the islands in the South China Sea at the end of WWII from the Japanese. This has been repeatedly emphasized in the Chinese education system, mass media, scholarly writings, government statements, through internet and various new social media outlets. Most Chinese people believe the South China Sea to be regarded as “China’s Sea”. Not only do they strongly believe in the historical claims, but also describes the evidence of other claimant states to be groundless. These beliefs and perceptions continue to serve the foundations for China’s policy in the disputes. Thus, the strong sense of entitlement and legitimate claims in the South China Sea, both at the elite and popular levels, serves as a major driving force.China’s Perceived Interests in the South China SeaMilitary interest: South China Sea is an important area for China’s national defense.
Chinese military strategists emphasize the deployment of China’s strategic nuclear submarines for the prime purpose of maximizing China’s nuclear deterrence against the US. They also believe that a strong foothold in the South China Sea would provide China with an “incalculable” strategic defense hinterland.Importance of Energy resources: China considers the South China Sea important for its energy resources. South China Sea is often regarded as the “second Persian Gulf”. Chinese elites have often complained of other claimant states taking advantage of China’s lack of capabilities in deep-water drilling technology by exploiting the energy resources massively in the South China Sea since the 1980s.Maritime Fishery resources: Fishery resources are a major interest for the Chinese provinces that are close to the South China Sea, particularly Hainan province. According to statistics, annual catch in the South China Sea in Hainan by the fishing communities is about 80,000 tons.
As the fishing resources in China’s offshore waters have largely depleted, the fishing community eventually is driven southwards to the South China Sea for a better catch.South China Sea disputes: in the context of multilateralism”China is prepared to hold multilateral discussions on the Spratly Islands and it would not limit its diplomacy to only bilateral talks.” – Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in 1992China’s multilateral diplomacy on the South China Sea disputes is mostly evident from China-ASEAN relations. They appeared to embrace their relationship in the context of community spirit.
China’s multilateral cooperation in the South China Sea disputes was prominently reflected in the 2002 China-ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which was marginally useful for keeping peace and stability in the area for the rest of the 2000s. Since then China currently engages with ASEAN in line, with the Code of Conduct negotiations to prevent isolation and accept multilateralism as a mechanism for crisis management. In terms of politics and security domains, it is not only the bilateral relations with each ASEAN member states, but multilateral approach has to be considered in order to stand against the Chinese pressure. Regional claimant states used the ASEAN platform to engage with China on the security management of the South China Sea. Multilaterally, ASEAN’s role has been management of tensions rather than resolution. Its member countries have been attempting to counter China’s assertive behavior through diplomatic channels- sometimes by sending negative signals to China through various statements or even direct criticisms targeting China’s actions. ASEAN also constantly urged for “all parties to work expeditiously for the early adoption of an effective Code of Conduct (COC)”. Recently, China’s participation in multilateral cooperation over the South China Sea disputes reflected its support to China’s White Paper which stated that China has made a constructive proposal to “shelve disputes and seek joint development”, and to uphold stability in the region.
In terms of economic perspective, closer ties between China and Southeast Asia are recognized at the economic multilateral level. It is not a hidden fact that China has become the largest trading partner with almost every Southeast Asian country during the 2000s, reaching a record of US$350.5 billion.
In 2013, China was Indonesia’s second largest trading partner.Malaysia is China’s largest trade partner in ASEAN.China is Singapore’s largest trading partner.China is a major investor of the economies of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner.In 2014, China became Philippine’s third-largest export destination.China’s use of “commercial diplomacy” with the ASEAN member states led to China and ASEAN as negotiating partners in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Another crucial prop of China’s multilateral economic cooperation has been the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Programme (GMS) of 1992 where China has been a major benefactor in the construction of networks of cross-borders roads.
In the recent years, China has been using economic incentives towards the Philippines with regard to the South China Sea disputes. China not only lifted its travel warnings to the Philippines but also restarted Philippine’s bananas and coconut exports to China (under Philippine’s President Duterte’s reign). For the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is mainly dominated by the US and Japan, China sorted an alternative to set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which now proves to be beneficial for China in connecting with the other Southeast Asian countries and gradually pulling them into its sphere of influence and impacting their respective South China Sea policies.ConclusionThe South China Sea issue is the major highlight of Sino-Southeast Asian relations in the present times. China has realized that regionalization of the maritime-security issues such as the South China Sea dispute is inevitable; therefore China must adapt itself to, so as that it can still play a significant role in dealing with the issues. Recently, non-traditional security issues are the focal priority in every China-ASEAN regular talks.
Yongnian Zheng and Tok Sow Kcat suggest that China should adopt a “non-confrontational” multilateralist approach. Chinese multilateralism has always been focused on establishing regional stability through international security. Thus, it is more regional than global in nature. China’s “new diplomacy” is a definite, multilateralistic in form but by nature it still remains bilateral or even unilateral in some cases.
Although it cannot be denied that China will likely back down and continue to uphold its sovereignty rights on the South China Sea disputed islands, however it is equally important to note that to some extent China has successfully maintained its territorial claims on the South China Sea through its engagement in various diplomatic interactions, “joint development” of disputed areas and its participation in multilateral negotiations. BibliographyWu, Guoguang. Lansdowne, Helen. China Turns to Multilateralism: Foreign Policy and Regional Security. Taylor & Francis Ltd.
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