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Under China's Shadow

August 25, 2020 1:23 PM
By Ian Martin in Libdem Voice

Map of SE AsiaThe new "cold war" in the far east, in reaction to China's economic power and military build-up, is set to cause the United States to strengthen its military presence in the region. There is speculation that Britain's new aircraft carrier HMS Elizabeth is going to be permanently based in the far east. It certainly will make its maiden voyage through the South China Sea. But what of the nations in the SE Asian area?

Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines certainly reject China's claims to all of the South China Sea. Indeed, the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague sided with the Philippines and rejected China's "nine-dash line" maritime claims. However, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries as a block are unlikely to side with the United States. Trade with China now exceeds that of the EU in the ASEAN region and the countries look to China to revitalize their economies especially in the wake of the fallout from covid-19.

While China seeks to resolve disputes through its Code of Conduct with ASEAN, this document suffers limitations. Its geographical scope remains undefined. Does it include all of the South China Sea or only parts of it?

Second, its legal status has not been defined. Unless it is binding it will be ineffective.

Third, the applicability of international norms remains doubtful. As mentioned, China has ignored the Permanent Court of Arbitration's Ruling. The Code of Conduct needs an effective monitoring mechanism for enforcing international law and norms. China must not seek to impose its will unjustly on others. It has fired on Vietnamese fishing vessels and in the past, China has asked Vietnam to stop oil drilling with a Spanish company and threatened war if the Philippines tried to enforce the Court of Arbitration ruling or drilled oil in the disputed areas. Indeed, China seeks to exclude foreign oil companies from the South China Sea.

Fourth, there is no agreement on the dispute mechanism.

Lastly, on the rights of third parties there are huge differences. The South China Sea is a major shipping route. While China rejects any actions of the United States as it has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, clearly along with Japan, Australia, and other international states, it has an interest in protecting freedom of navigation where one-third of global shipping passes each year. The United States navy continues to hold drills in the South China Sea.

Can the nations of South East Asia continue to rely on American power with the ever-growing risk of a clash resulting in all out conflict? At the end of last year, a flotilla of as many as 63 Chinese fishing boats, four Chinese coast guard vessels and a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel sailed into the area of the Natunas (Indonesia's northern most islands), causing a tense confrontation on the water and a furious exchange between Jakarta and Beijing. Indonesia deployed jets and several navy ships to ensure the Chinese withdrawal.

Indonesia along with the rest of ASEAN needs to create a settlement of South China Sea disputes which is based on international law which with the backing of the international community China must adhere to.

Editor: Thanks to Ian Martin, Lib Dems Overseas member in Thailand for permitting the publication of this article on CLD website.