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Latest on the South China Sea: Kiss and Make Up or What?

Latest on the South China Sea: Kiss and Make Up or What?

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  • Current Affairs
For as long as many of us can remember, the South China Sea has always been a disputed area.

China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims in the area, and historically, violent confrontations have taken place between only two countries: Vietnam and China.

The claims have mostly been made on a historical basis.

China has claimed that the Spratly and Paracel Island chains were integral parts of the Chinese nation. In 1947, it released its Nan hai zhu dao (south islands) map detailing these claims, which have been vindicated by Taiwan. Likewise, Vietnam has sought to prove with documented evidence that it has ruled over the island chains since the 17th Century.

Thus far, all of these historical claims seem to be motivated by the prospect of economic gain, since the waters around the above-mentioned islands remain relatively unexplored, and could be home to rich natural resources. Yet as the recent ruling by the International Court of Arbitration in favour of the Philippines has begun to demonstrate, this diplomatic tug-of-war has become less about financial gain and more about ego and political legitimacy.

While the ruling under the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea ruled that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights over the South China sea, it by no means declared that the islands belong to any particular country either. China was simply found guilty of interfering with traditional Philippine fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal, and its sea vessels had created a serious risk of collision with Philippine vessels.

In an unanticipated turn of events, China’s embassy in Manila released a statement on 17th July expressing China’s willingness to support the Philippines in its drug war. It doesn’t take a cynic to wonder, in this case, what kind of game exactly China is trying to play. A game of diplomatic bluff, perhaps?

What makes all of this so confusing is the fact that there was a point in time when the two nations were actually on relatively good terms. Between 1975 and 2000, a number of significant bilateral agreements were actually signed between the two countries. Amongst them were the Scientific and Technological Cooperation Agreement, the Visiting Forces Agreement, the Cultural Agreement, and even an Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement.

All of these initiatives were meant to improve bilateral relations between the two countries. After all, China has always endeavoured to secure its regional interests by fostering relationships with South East Asian Nations. Most notable of these are of course the Communist government of Vietnam and Cambodia, with whom China has had a commercial and cultural relationship since the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

One theory of China’s behaviour has suggested that the nation continues to behave like a petulant teenager because it is indeed one. Considering the end of the Cultural Revolution took place in 1976, China remains a relatively young player in the international arena. At the same time, its size and growing economic power enable it, to a relatively large extent, to throw its weight around.

This has manifested itself in a myriad of ways, from its belligerent pursuit of its one-China policy with regards to Taiwan to its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and even its insistence that the ethnic Chinese of Singapore owe their allegiance to Beijing.

For the member states of ASEAN at least, the road ahead will be a thorny one as they strive to navigate their political and commercial links to China alongside preserving their national sovereignty. A joint statement on the South China Sea at the recent ASEAN regional forum captured this. Following Cambodia’s objection to any mention of the International Court of Arbitration’s ruling, a compromise was reached to mention that only peaceful resolutions to disputes in the South China Sea should be found in accordance with international law.

One can hardly blame Cambodia, a nation still recovering from the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, for taking the side of an economic powerhouse like China. At the same time, this will pose new challenges to ASEAN as it continues to pursue both unity and regional autonomy.

Going forward, perhaps ASEAN will need to refine and supplement its processes of consultation and policy harmonisation in order to ensure that more formidable nations do not find it so easy to command its member states as proxies for their own interests.

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