New turns in South China Sea debate – The Irrawaddy


BANGKOK – The ongoing wrangle between China and a number of smaller neighbours over jurisdiction on the disputed South China Sea took a new turn yesterday with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III meeting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in Tokyo.

Without mentioning China, PM Noda told reporters after the summit that both countries would increase “cooperation between coastguards and defense-related authorities”. According to a joint statement issued after the meeting, both countries “confirmed that freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and compliance with established international law including the UNCLOS (the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) and the peaceful settlement of disputes serve the interests of the two countries and the whole region”.

Vietnam and The Philippines have tried to force the pace on the issue in recent days, with Manila hosting a meeting of scholars last week in an attempt to buttress a recent proposal on resolving the row over the South China Sea. Around the same time, news broke that India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) was negotiating with Hanoi to explore potential oil and gas deposits under the South China Sea in what Vietnam claims to be in its offshore economic zone, which is also an area claimed by China.

Called the East Sea in Vietnam and the West Philippine Sea in The Philippines, the South China Sea is a major international shipping transit point with significant oil and gas deposits believed to sit under the sea-bedChina and Vietnam claim ownership of the Paracel Islands in the northern part of the Sea, and ownership of the southerly Spratly Islands is disputed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei.

China regards the South China Sea as a “core interest” and – going by a notorious “cow’s tongue” map – so-called because of the shape of China’s apparent designs on the South China Sea – Beijing seems to claim to most of the water. The United States describes the South China Sea as a key international waterway, and now Japan and India are getting involved – apparently at the behest of the Philippines and Vietnam – two claimants that have have had harsh words with China over the sea in recent weeks.

The United States has retreated somewhat from its outspokenness on the South China Sea in 2010, according to Walter Lohman of the Heritage Foundation. He told The Irrawaddy that the US is “sensitive to the discomfort other ASEAN countries had with Vietnam’s assertiveness”, and, as a result, the Philippines and Vietnam seem to be engaging Asia’s other big powers for support against China.

Japan has a separate dispute with China over an archipelago in the East China Sea – known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands and in China as the Diaoyu – so Tokyo’s engagement with Manila over the South China Sea might be seen as an attempt to hit back at Beijing. However Japan has a stake in the South China Sea issue, with 90% of its oil imports transiting that waterway en route from Africa and the Middle East.

Rory Medcalf of Australia’s Lowy Institute writes on China-India relations, and he told The Irrawaddy that he believes that this India-Vietnam engagement “is more than commerce”. India has territorial disputes with China and is believed to be angered at Beijing’s support for Pakistan – which in turn has engaged in a deepening war-of-words with the United States over American allegations that Pakistan’s intelligence agency gave direct support to a series of recent insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.

Remarking on the ONGC venture, China’s Foreign Ministry said the actions of any country exploring for oil and gas in the South China Sea without China’s permission are “illegal and invalid” and “constitutes an infringement upon China’s sovereignty.”

Since last week, however, Beijing’s ire has turned to Manila. An editorial in the Chinese Government mouthpiece People’s Daily on Monday slammed The Philippines over its latest diplomatic moves. “The Philippines has lost its cool over the territorial disputes”, it claimed, scoffing at attempts to forge a common position among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states on the issue. China’s Global Times echoed this, reminding that “two ASEAN members, Cambodia and Laos, did not even send delegates to the meeting”, evidence that “there is no collective will to unite and confront China”.

Aquino’s Japan meeting comes less than a month after he visited China, when both sides stressed their preference for dialogue over the South China Sea. However, Aquino’s latest gambit in Tokyo has prompted another of China’s newspapers, China Daily, to question the good faith of both Vietnam and The Philippines. “By repeatedly going back on their own word, they not only put their own credibility at stake, but also erode the political trust between them and China”, said the newspaper.

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