China’s attitude towards a territorial sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea has proved to be problematic in South East Asia. For decades now, the territorial dispute in the Spratly/Nasha islands, known to be rich in natural resources, continue to undermine peace and security in region.
The underlining cause of the tension is that, China claim historical territorial sovereignty on the disputed islands and waters, which clashes with a number of states such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Taiwan. These states too claim legal sovereign rights over the disputed islands.
For decades, there have been discussions and agreements between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China on how to end the dispute and to create favorable conditions for mutual benefit based on the principles of the United Nation Convention of the Law of the Sea. Such agreements include the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of parties in the South China Sea that was signed in 2002 which lay down the rules and behavior of states in the disputed islands.
However despite the DOC there is a continual increase of animosity and lack of cooperation around the disputed islands. One of the reasons, if not the only one, is because for a long time China resists settling the dispute through multilateral negotiations. It consistently argues that it will only deal with the South China Sea dispute through bilateral dialogue with the parties involved in the dispute. The Chinese government believes that the territorial issue will only be settled reasonably without any third party involved in the negotiation.
As a result, China’s approach creates negative impact within the ASEAN bloc as it struggles to find unanimous agreement to end the dispute. The impact was evident last year during the 45th ASEAN regional summit in Cambodia 2012, when the South China Sea became a subject of contention and member states failed to issue a joint statement on how to deal with the dispute to bring about peace and security in the region.
Now with ASEAN’s top priority to form a new economic community by 2015 under the new secretariat group led by Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, the question is; will the ASEAN group influence China in re-thinking its position and approach towards the disputed islands.
Recently China took a decision in January 2013 to oppose Philippines’s initiative to resolve the dispute in the UN arbitral tribunal.The Philippines approached the UN arbitral tribunal with intentions to pressure China into multilateral discussions with all the claimant states after failed attempts by the ASEAN bloc to get China on board. China’s response to the Philippines proposal is not something new; they argue that the consensus in the DOC document states that disputes should be solved through talks between the nations directly involved.This is the principle that China always uses to avoid multilateral dialogues as a vehicle to end the dispute.
It is somehow unacceptable, however, that China chose to use the DOC to back its position after it failed to honor the same document last year when it took a decision to build a city with a military base on one of the disputed islands despite the DOC principles. This is one of the actions that sparked the dispute because it placed China in breach of the DOC agreement.
The DOC states that all Parties in the South China Sea must undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others. This means that all parties must refraining from action of inhabiting the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and musthandle their differences in a constructive manner. China, however, failed to follow this principle, so it is somewhat surprising that it feels suitable to use the DOC in opposition to the UN arbitrary tribunal.
As a result, to a large extent this is the challenge that will continue to weaken negotiations and agreements between China and the ASEAN bloc if China only intends to plays by the rules and principles of the DOC agreement when it serves only their interest.
In conclusion, with all China’s actions and approach in the South China Sea, one can only conclude that China’s unwillingness to engage in dialogue with other claimant states in a multilateral space will continue to create hostility in the disputed waters.Without any concrete solution agreed and followed by all parties, China will continue to intimidate other claimant states in the disputed islands and waters through its strong military presence. Now the question is; will the ASEAN bloc find a plausible way to limit China dominance in the land of dispute? In a way this will depend on ASEAN’s ability to form an economic community and how will the community have impact on South China Sea playing field with China.