Territorial dispute in South China Sea tops news of 2012

Jan 1, 2013- The territorial dispute in the South China Sea created the biggest ripples in the Asia Pacific in a year that exposed the potential for hostilities and possible escalation of conflict not just among claimants, but also for many other countries.

The issue will remain critical in 2013 as a new Chinese law will take effect on New Year’s Day against foreign ships that enter virtually the entire South China Sea under Beijing’s 9-dash line map.

Under the new regulation, police in the Southern province of Hainan can board, inspect, detain, confiscate, immobilize and expel foreign vessels that enter Chinese waters “illegally.” Chinese authorities have yet to clarify what qualifies as illegal. They also remain vague on how to reconcile jurisdiction over the area while maintaining freedom of navigation for other parties.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] expressed concerns over the new law, as it would affect not just claimants, but also parties that need to pass through the vital sea lanes.

Several countries, including the Philippines, have expressed worries that the implementation could further raise tensions in the area. Last April, the Philippines and China were locked in a standoff in Scarborough Reef after the Chinese prevented the arrest of Chinese poachers in the area.

Vietnam and China were likewise involved in similar skirmishes, with China accused of cutting cables of Vietnamese oil exploration ships that were conducting seismic surveys in the area. The Spratly Islands are being claimed wholly by China and in part by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. The group of islands is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas, and also serves as a major fishing ground.

Code of conduct remains elusive

During the ASEAN and China summit this year, ASEAN attempted but failed to establish a system for resolving disputes in the South China Sea. China, along with its ally Cambodia, stalled plans to develop a code of conduct that would govern the actions of claimants in the disputed area.

China twice appeared to have influenced Cambodia to arrive at an agreement on the issue. In July, ASEAN failed to issue an agreement among its foreign ministers after Cambodia, host of the conference, refused to allow mention of the South China Sea.

The Hainan proclamation is a complication to overlapping claims in the South China Sea, according to the Asia-based risk consultancy firm Pacific Strategies and Assessments [PSA].

“China will not go to war over its territorial claims, but it can be expected Beijing will test the waters in many ways to see how far they can intimidate other claimants,” PSA Managing Director Scott Harrison said.

South China Sea provides vital sea lanes

Many nations depend on the vital sea lanes of South China Sea. Any tension that could spark in these sea lanes could seriously affect global trade and disrupt the peace and security in the region. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has said at least 50,000 ships pass through the disputed waters annually, many of which come from Europe.

Because of the growing military assertiveness of China, other claimants are moving toward upgrading their own defense capabilities.

Vietnam People’s Navy recently completed its first locally manufactured warship. The Navy also bought two French helicopters. Built by Hong Ha shipbuilding plant, the ship is equipped with an AK 630 air defense gun, surface-to-air missiles, and radar and enemy recognition systems.

The Philippines, meanwhile, is moving toward establishing a credible defense system through the purchase and acquisition of equipment. The country also is moving toward establishing defense cooperation with other countries such as New Zealand and Canada.

Manila also has extended a modernization program of its armed forces by another 15 years in a bid to continue the upgrade of the military’s defense capabilities.

In 1995, then-President Fidel V. Ramos signed the AFP Modernization Act with the aim of developing a self-reliant and credible strategic armed force. But what was envisioned as a modernization program turned out to be only a partial capability upgrade of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Aquino signed a law on Dec. 11 extending the act.

Tensions in Senkaku Islands

The region is closely watching the territorial dispute among Japan, China and Taiwan over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyutai in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan.

Coast Guard ships from Japan and Taiwan blasted each other with water cannons near the islands in what Japan considers its territorial waters as several Taiwan fishing boats sailed nearby. In a separate incident, three Chinese surveillance ships also entered the waters in a move described by Chinese officials as a “rights defense” patrol, which has further stirred tensions.

The dispute is determining the domestic political landscape and reshaping the foreign policy dynamics in the region.

Already, there are talks of rearming Japan. Manila’s Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Philippines will back the rearming of Japan to halt the growing military assertiveness of China.

Incoming Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to revise the nation’s pacifist constitution and beef up the military.

Like the Spratlys, the Senkaku islands are believed to be rich in oil and mineral deposits. It also boasts of a rich source of marine resources.

Missile launches threaten region

North Korea’s attempts to launch a satellite into orbit remain a significant threat to security in the region.

Following four unsuccessful attempts, Pyongyang succeeded on Dec. 12 in launching a satellite into orbit, boosting a bid to have ballistic missiles that threaten the region.

The successful launch provided a major domestic boost for the country’s young new leader, Kim Jong-un. Many believe the launch demonstrates North Korea’s ability to send a nuclear warhead 4,000 to 6,000 kilometers [2,400 to 3,600 miles], putting Northeast Asia and potentially the northwest of the United States within range.

China, United States leadership remains steady

There are signs of stability following the selection of Xi Jinping to lead China’s Communist Party.

In 2012, Xi embarked on a highly successful five-day visit to Washington that signaled a renewed era of trade cooperation, especially in agriculture, and a wave of new export contracts for U.S. companies. Many have viewed the visit as favorable to both countries, a healthy contrast to beliefs portraying the two Pacific giants as competitors rather than partners.

Xi has expressed positive statements toward the United States. He also wants to expand investment and mutual trade ties with the country.

U.S. President Barack Obama embarked on a three-day visit to Southeast Asia following his re-election in November, strengthening traditional relationships and building bold new ones and at the same time, defusing tensions with China.

Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma, where he held talks on Nov. 19 with President Thein Sein. Obama publicly hugged the country’s leading human rights advocate, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and praised the country’s steps toward openness and democracy.

India’s emerging leadership in Asia

The emerging leadership of India in the region is undeniable. The country of 1.2 billion people is moving toward consolidation of its defense capabilities in the region.

India recently asked Israel for a quicker delivery of bilateral defense projects, including two advanced surface-to-air missile systems, drones and helicopters.

Last November, India successfully tested its missile shield using the Advanced Air Defense Interceptor Missile to destroy incoming ballistic missiles. The test shield is part of India’s emerging generation of strategic missiles.

In 2013, the Indian Navy is set to receive the P-8I following the successful first flight of the derivative of The Boeing Co.’s 737-800 long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. As many as two dozen planes are expected to be delivered to the Navy. The plane is an Indian variant of the P-8A Poseidon that Boeing is developing for the U.S. Navy.

India on South China Sea issue

The South Asian country recently changed its policy on the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. While not a claimant, India has a stake in the three offshore oil blocks partly owned by Indian-government run Oil and Natural Gas Corp. off the coast of Vietnam.

India’s new Naval chief, Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi, recently announced the Navy is ready to sail into the disputed waters to protect economic interests and oil and natural gas in the disputed waters, if necessary. Earlier this year, Admiral Nirmal Kumar Verma, Joshi’s predecessor, said the Indian Ocean Region is the primary area of interest for India.

China protested against two of the blocks in Phu Khanh Basin and said they are not within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone [EEZ] of Vietnam. India backs Hanoi and cites the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas [UNCLOS] to work on the blocks. India imports some 70 percent of its natural gas and crude oil, competing with China in the energy market.

India, along with Vietnam and the Philippines, recently protested China’s newly launched e-passports that showed disputed areas like Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin and the Spratlys as parts of China.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is moving forward with a three-year plan to strengthen and modernize the country’s military arsenal.

Indonesia’s defense modernization, armed with a $16.7 billion budget, is likely to position the country as the region’s chief military spender. Many believe that because of the Southeast Asian country’s path of reforms toward democratic consolidation, emerging military power of the country should be of no concern for potential destabilization.

Asia Pacific Defense Forum