East Sea disputes: Time for Code of Conduct?

Published: 28/06/2011 05:00



VietNamNet presents the following commentary by Aileen S.P. Baviera, a
scholar from the School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological

Photo: Xinhua

Recent incidents in the South China Sea (or East Sea) point to China’s growing
assertiveness and seeming readiness to pressure other countries to recognise its
claims. The region urgently needs a Code of Conduct that is specifically
designed for the prevention of armed conflict in the disputed areas.

In the last several months, a number of incidents occurred that highlight what
appears to be growing willingness by China to use its armed strength to pressure
and influence rival claimants, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, in the
disputed East Sea. In February, there were reported incidents of Filipino
fishermen being threatened and fired on from Chinese vessels. On 2 March 2011,
two Chinese patrol boats confronted a Philippine oil exploration vessel MV
Veritas Voyager and ordered it to cease activities in the Reed Bank area, which
they said was under Chinese jurisdiction.

Subsequently, China announced plans to anchor an oil rig in the Spratlys. In
late May, the Philippines discovered posts and a buoy on Amy Douglas Bank
thought to have been unloaded by Chinese vessels, indicating possible new
construction plans. Meanwhile, a Chinese marine surveillance vessel approached a
Petrovietnam ship and cut an undersea cable that it was laying within Hanoi’s
claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), provoking public demonstrations in Hanoi.

China’s worrisome posture

The assertions of sovereignty themselves are not new, as this is a long-standing
dispute where actions by one claimant or another would invariably draw sharp
reactions from others. But it is China’s actions, now backed by more modern
maritime enforcement capabilities and demonstrating a more assertive and
decidedly nationalistic streak, that are proving to be most worrisome.

The perennial guessing game remains whether the recent acts of asserting
sovereignty are being undertaken with the full knowledge and support of central
authorities in Beijing, or whether – as argued by Stein Tonneson and others -
these represented not a new Chinese strategy but rather “a number of
ill-advised, uncoordinated, sometimes arrogant moves” by various institutions
pursuing their respective mandates. Ultimately, neither explanation brings
comfort to China’s neighbours.

Chinese government spokespersons have in fact described supposed intrusions into
the Philippines as “normal marine research activities”, and the incident with
Vietnam as “normal marine law enforcement and surveillance activities” in
“China’s territorial waters”. Indeed, China Daily reported late last year that
its China Marine Surveillance (CMS) authority was adding over 1,000 new
personnel, 36 ships and new equipment to strengthen their “enforcement
capacity”. Established in 1998, the CMS claimed to have 91 patrol boats at the
end of 2005, which had increased to 300 boats and 10 aircraft by the end of

Such a prospect of a large Chinese presence – navy, paramilitary, or civilian –
behaving in disputed waters as though they were universally recognised
authorities “normally” enforcing Chinese law in its “indisputable” territory, is
not something the neighbours are likely to warm up to. And if ships, persons and
properties of neighbouring states and foreign companies engaged in resource
exploration can be targets of intimidation, why not some commercial ship
navigating the sealanes in the future? If present trends were to continue,
China’s oft-stated pledge to uphold freedom of sealanes will begin to ring

Need for Code of Conduct

For now, China appears to be taking the strongest action against unilateral oil
exploration activities. Prior to the latest incidents, it had prevented
international oil companies BP and Exxonmobil from exploring in Vietnam-claimed
areas, reportedly warning them that doing so would affect their own projects in
China. Chinese officials and scholars have also recently been mouthing the
mantra of joint development, perhaps indicating that the reason behind the
strong pressure is to nudge Vietnam and the Philippines back onto this track and
away from unilateral exploration, following their initial trilateral cooperation
for joint seismic research in the Philippine EEZ. (The trilateral research
lapsed inconclusively in 2008 after getting entangled in Philippine domestic

If so, it would be a strange form of persuasion, but one that both Vietnam and
the Philippines should study carefully in terms of balancing their respective
security and economic goals, while simultaneously promoting national interests
and regional stability. Even so, public opposition in the Philippines will
likely impede any new agreement that involves joint resource exploitation in the
areas closest only to the Philippines.

Given the brewing tensions, there is a need for the various parties to seriously
pursue discussions not just on the implementing guidelines of the 2002
Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, as the DOC has likely been overtaken by
events. What is needed is a Code of Conduct that is specifically dedicated to
the prevention of armed conflict in the disputed areas. China’s legitimate
interests in the East Sea, as well as everyone else’s, will need to be addressed
through dialogue and negotiation. However, China must step back from its posture
of intimidation, if not the actual use of force, to pressure others into
recognition of its claims.

China must bear much of the burden for lowering military tensions and restoring
an atmosphere conducive to dialogue. On the other hand, Vietnam, the Philippines
and ASEAN as a whole will do well to build their own consensus on the issue and
clarify to China the parameters of their proposed multilateral approach for
addressing the disputes, as well as their expectations for the Code of Conduct.

Aileen San Pablo-Baviera
(Ph.D., recently a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, is a professor at the
Asian Center, University of the Philippines. She is also affiliated with the
MacArthur Asia Security Initiative project on Policy Alternatives for
Integrating Bilateral and Multilateral Regional Security Approaches in the Asia

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