Tensions Rising Again in South China Sea

The ASEAN Regional Forum meets in Phnom Penh, Cambodia against the back-drop of increasingly militarized territorial disputes in the South China Sea. “Combat-ready” patrols by Chinese ships, Vietnamese military overflights of the Spratly’s, and the Philippines seeking U.S. reassurance that their Mutual Defense Treaty remains intact all point to rising risks of confrontation. In perhaps the boldest commercial move to date, China began offering disputed ocean blocs for sale to within 42 miles of the Vietnamese coastline, well within internationally recognized exclusive economic zones.

That any foreign oil or gas company would enter into such a hotly contested region remains unlikely. CNOOC, a state-controlled Chinese firm, however began deep water drilling over 200 miles from Hong Kong. This advance means rich deposits throughout the area are now within technical reach.

Provocations have occurred fairly regularly over the past several years, mostly over rich fishing grounds. Boats joust with coast guard cutters. Flags are planted on rocky outcroppings to lend a shaky credence to antiquated claims of sovereignty. China and the Philippines faced off for over a month at the Scarborough Shoals until cooler heads prevailed.

While ASEAN continues talking about peaceful resolution a major sea grab is underway. Despite international norms and a 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Seasforce majeure rather than the power of the pen has been defining new boundaries over contested territory.

A unified voice (or military coalition) from the region to counter China’s more aggressive stance won’t come anytime soon. Many countries within ASEAN have no direct stake in the outcome. Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos remain on the sidelines. At the same time southeast Asia pursues lucrative trade ties to their top export destination China they remain wary of China’s regional ambitions.

Government leaders repeatedly say they want balance (meaning more U.S. military presence, investment and trade) but they don’t want to choose sides. That becomes a harder bargain to sustain if China continues to take while forums only talk.

A year ago the Indian naval vessel INS Airavat, while making port calls to Vietnam within 45 nautical miles of the coast, was passively confronted over the airwaves by China regarding its presence. In June of this year the INS Shivalik along with three other Indian ships were physically “escorted” through international waters en route from the Philippines to South Korea by a People’s Liberation Army Navy frigate. They were hailed over the airwaves with “Welcome to Chinese waters.”

Full Map of the Contested Area