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jueves, 2 de septiembre de 2010

New US interest in South China Sea

Source: Philstar
The long simmering tension over competing claims for the disputed areas of the South China Sea usually lay dormant each year until the Asian Regional Forum convenes for its annual meeting and the issue suddenly becomes a hot topic, only for it to die down shortly after. This year however is different. First, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech in the conference is the clearest statement yet of the US position on the disputed territory. She told a conference of Southeast and East Asian ministers that the US had a “national interest” in seeing the territorial disputes resolved through a “collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants.” She stressed that while the US remained neutral on which country has a stronger claim to the islands, Washington had an interest in free shipping on the South China Sea and would help facilitate multilateral talks on the issue. Admiral Robert Willard, the head of the US Pacific Command, followed the remarks by Secretary Hillary Clinton, a month later in Manila saying that while Washington does not take sides in the disputes but added it will oppose any use “of force or any forms of coercion to stake these claims on the part of any single nation at the expense of the others.”

Second, as if to underscore their seriousness, the US naval carriers US John S. McCain and US George Washington visited Da Nang on August 10 and joint exercise followed soon after. Then weeks later, the US and Korea held joint exercises which also raised concern in Beijing.

In response to the Clinton statement, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi accused the Obama administration of meddling in an internal affair and warned that turning the issue into an international or multilateral one would “only make matters worse.” In late July, Chinese naval forces carried out drills in the disputed southern waters. On Aug. 25, China claimed it had used a small, manned submarine to plant the national flag deep beneath the South China Sea.

To remind those of you who may have just come back from the moon after 20 years, the so-called South China Sea dispute is about the competing claims over a territory stretching roughly from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca in the southwest, to the Strait of Taiwan (between Taiwan and China) in the northeast. The area includes more than 400 small islands, rocks, and reefs, with the majority located in the Paracel and Spratly Island chains. Many of these islands are partially submerged islets, rocks, and reefs unsuitable for habitation and are little more than shipping hazards. The total land area of the Spratly Islands is actually less than four square miles. But the islands are important for strategic and political reasons, however, as claims of ownership means the surrounding sea and its resources as well. The sea holds valuable fishing grounds and as yet, largely unexploited oil and natural gas fields.

Six economies claim the islands: the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all of the islands in the South China Sea based largely on historical documents. The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim all or parts of the Spratly Islands based largely on their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and continental shelf. According to UNCLOS, an EEZ extends 200 nautical miles from the low-water line on a country’s coast.

China claims all the islands as part of its territory and use them as basis for extending its EEZ thus virtually including all of the South China Sea and with it, the exercise of sovereignty, including the freedom of navigation.

It is generally agreed that enormous deposits of oil and gas lay under but that it was simply not commercially feasible to exploit those resources given other options. But as the competition for remaining deposits of crude oil and natural gas accelerates, this obscure group of reefs and shoals in the South China Sea has become an important and much-contested center of attention. One source has estimated that the oil and gas deposits under the Spratlys total nearly 18 billion tons, as compared to a total of roughly 13 billion tons for Kuwait. There is no indigenous population, but some of these “islands” are garrisoned by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines but China has the biggest presence and has been the most assertive in defending its claim.

In 1988, skirmishes between Vietnamese and Chinese navies ended with China occupying several islands in the Paracels previously under Vietnam. In 1995, the Chinese built a military installation on Mischief Reef which was only 136 miles from Palawan and therefore well within the Philippine EEZ. With its growing economic, political, and military strength; an uncompromising diplomatic stance; and demonstrated aggressiveness in pursuing its objectives, China has become the most dominant player in resolving the dispute, which it prefers to pursue through bilateral means.

The failure to resolve the dispute in the South China Sea has allowed over-fishing and the exploitation of seabed resources, maritime piracy, and rampant environmental degradation to remain unchecked.

The new American interest in the Spratlys dispute must be welcomed by all the claimants even though China has expressed discomfort over it for the moment. The neutral stance of the US on each claimant’s rights is helpful and makes its appeal for a peaceful and rational settlement of the dispute – based on their interest in preserving free and unobstructed passage through the area – more credible. As a rising economic and military power not only in the region but globally (it just became the world’s second largest economy), it must be equally important for China to be perceived as a responsible power for it to be able to effectively exercise the influence commensurate with its status.

The credibility of ASEAN to effectively represent the region’s interest also faces a crucial test here. As a founding member, it is equally incumbent on the Philippines to act jointly in its effort to resolve the dispute if it is to bolster ASEAN and preserve its unity.

Policy on this issue cannot be oversimplified. It requires a complex, sophisticated and sustained approach. Above all, it involves many stakeholders. There are other issues at stake here that involves many other stakeholders – the area is a vital passage for international shipping and a conduit for a third of the world’s maritime trade. Continued anarchy in the area would not be in the long term interest of everyone. Striking a deal bilaterally – even assuming it is fair and equitable – would not resolve this long term concern and would be irresponsible on the part of both parties.

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