South China Sea accord needed: experts

Wednesday, July 6, 2011
By Manuel Mogato, Reuters

MANILA -- China and its Southeast Asian neighbors must adopt a more binding legal agreement on how to behave in the disputed South China Sea to prevent conflict, security and diplomatic analysts said on Tuesday.

While the experts speaking at an international conference in Manila did not expect current tension to lead to conflict, they said there could be accidents because of increased activity by claimants to assert jurisdiction over the Spratly Islands.

The Spratlys, which cover a major shipping lane, rich fishing grounds and suspected to sit on oil and gas deposits, are claimed entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

“The situation is urgent now because if left unaddressed, it could lead to skirmishes in the sea,” Carlyle Thayer of Australia's University of New South Wales told Reuters.

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had to agree on a rules-based regime with obligation and enforcement mechanisms, and include non-claimant states in the treaty, he said.

“We need a code on how countries, including the United States, Australia and Japan, should behave in the Southeast Asian states.”

Last week, an Australian think tank warned that incidents in the sea could lead to war in Asia.

The Philippines and Vietnam have protested against aggressive action by China in the South China Sea in recent months, including accusations of cutting seismic cables on oil and gas exploration ships, threats to ram vessels, and firing shots at fishermen.

Last month, the Philippine military reported that an unidentified fighter jet harassed Filipino fishermen in the Spratlys, the second incident involving unidentified fighters since May.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino said the Philippines was committed to resolving territorial disputes through peaceful means but it would not be bullied by other states.

“It's not just for others to claim what is clearly ours,” Aquino told diplomats at a foreign affairs department ceremony.

“No one desires a conflict, but it does not mean we will allow ourselves to be cowed by bigger countries.”

The Philippines wanted a rules-based international system to ensure a peaceful, fair and effective resolution, he said.

China Isolated?

China and ASEAN signed an informal code of conduct in 2002, which including a ban on building on unoccupied features. The Philippines said China had erected poles and set a buoy in May in an area Manila claims, a breach of the code. Tran Truong Thuy of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam said the tension exposed the limitations of the informal code.

China was returning to its hardline position of insisting on only bilateral negotiations, and its assertiveness showed its “charm offensive” towards ASEAN had lost momentum, he said.

But Beijing could be isolated if it obstructed talks to implement a set of guidelines and possibly a formal treaty.

“They will be out of the game,” Tran said, sharing Thayer's view that other parties, such as the United States, should be part of a rules-based regime in the South China Sea.

China has called on non-claimants to stay out of the dispute, and has been angered by Washington's comments on it.

“Officially, China is very opposed to any involvement of other extra states,” said Hong Nong of the University of Alberta's China Institute. Beijing has agreed to work with Southeast Asian neighbours to resolve the Spratlys dispute, but would prefer to negotiate only with “relevant parties,” she said.

“China will not use force,” she added.

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