Claimants’ Position in the South China Sea

Thursday, 19 March 2015

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The South China Sea dispute is a trigger for future  Asia-Pacific conflicts, which have grave repercussion on regional peace and stability. It requires an innovative approach to manage the crisis and prevent the conflict.
Existing bilateral and multilateral dialogs between claimant states, and between China and Asean significantly, contribute to trust and confidence building between claimants. However, they are not effective in managing crisis and preventing conflict.
The tensions are driven by different claims over the sovereignty over islands, reefs, and rocks in the disputed South China Sea, competing to get access to mineral resources, and strategic competition between China and the United States in the region.
To find a solution to the dispute, one needs to understand the different positions and approaches of the claimant states, including Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. These countries have not reached common positions and approaches in resolving the dispute.
Brunei is the smallest, but one of the richest, countries in Southeast Asia. Its economy relies on the energy sector. With regard to the dispute, Brunei adopts a low-key approach, merely calling for dialogue and peaceful negotiation.
Assuming chairmanship of Asean in 2012, Brunei managed to avoid unnecessary tensions between China and other Southeast Asian claimants. It helped facilitate dialogues between China and Asean on the South China Sea on the Code of Conduct.
China has become more assertive in its claims. It has invested in expanding reclamation construction work on the islets (Johnson South Reef and Gaven Reef) in order to prove effective occupation of the body of water under the nine-dash line. This covers more than 80 percent of the South China Sea. China also has rapidly modernized its blue water navy forces.
China insists on using bilateral mechanisms to address the dispute. In the meantime, it maintains multilateral dialogue with Asean on the legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) although the speed of negotiation is very slow.
Malaysia, similar to Brunei, takes a “play it safe” approach towards the dispute. Quiet diplomacy and consultation with China and the Asean Member States have been conducted by Malaysia to build trust and mutual understanding.
As the chair of Asean this year, Malaysia hopes to come to a conclusion on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. However, it is difficult for all countries to come to a consensus, and Malaysia does not wish for relationships with any countries, in particular China, to turn sour.
The Philippines is the most vocal and emotional claimant. President Benigno Aquino openly criticised China, proactively multilateralizing the dispute.  They encourage the intervention of the US and Japan to counterbalance China, and pressure other Asean member states to stand united against China.
Moreover, the Philippines uses legal measures to resolve the territorial dispute with China. In early 2013, the Philippines instituted arbitral proceedings against China under Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However China did not accept the arbitration.
Vietnam pursues both bilateral and multilateral approaches with regard to the dispute. On one hand, it tries to maintain and strengthen bilateral dialogues with China to promote mutual trust, manage crisis, and prevent conflict. On the other hand, it tries to create a collective and concerted strategic deterrence against China by strengthening strategic and defence ties with the US, Japan, Russia, and India.
Vietnam prioritizes the conclusion of the legally binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. It also relies on a self-help approach by investing more in defence sector. It recently purchased six Kilo-Class submarines and other military equipment from Russia.
To manage and resolve the dispute, claimants have to work closely together to find a common ground and a holistic approach. The possible breakthrough is the realisation of the Code of Conduct to restraint claimants from taking destabilising actions or changing the status-quo.

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