Beijings stance critical in resolution
After a lull of several years, tensions in the South China Sea have been rising since 2007.
This is due to a combination of factors including increasing competition over maritime resources (i.e. crude oil, natural gas and fisheries), attempts by the disputants to strengthen their jurisdictional claims through national legislation or submissions to the United Nations, rising nationalism, and the growing militarization of the dispute.
Fundamental differences between the United States and China over freedom of navigation rights have added an extra layer of complexity to the dispute.
Unnerved by China's increasingly assertive behavior in the maritime domain, in 2010 regional states expressed growing concern at developments in the South China Sea, and there was an expectation that Beijing would recalibrate its policy and adopt a more accommodating stance.
These expectations have proved unfounded, and in the first six months of 2011 tensions escalated to a point not seen since the end of the Cold War.
While all parties have emphasized their commitment to peace and stability in the South China Sea the three principal protagonists ― China, Vietnam, and the Philippines ― have hardened their positions.
Moreover, Southeast Asian officials have been perplexed and alarmed at the disconnect between Beijing's words and actions in the South China Sea since the beginning of the year, and especially in the period March to June.
Indeed, recent incidents point to a disturbing trend: China has moved from being assertive in 2010 to being aggressive in 2011.
Chinese vessels have harassed oil exploration vessels operating in the 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the Philippines and Vietnam, tightened enforcement of the country's annual unilateral fishing ban, and unloaded construction materials on unoccupied reefs.
A number of reasons account for China's more truculent behavior: a sense that the Southeast Asian claimants are "plundering" maritime resources; the rapid modernization of the People's Liberation Army Navy and expansion of civilian maritime law enforcement agencies have provided China with the means to apply coercive pressure; China may be testing the resolve of the United States; and domestic political factors in the run-up to the 2012 Party Congress.
China's more aggressive tactics raises the risk of an armed confrontation at sea, which could escalate into a more serious conflict.
Meanwhile, against the backdrop of rising tensions, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have failed to agree on guidelines to implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DoC) in the South China Sea, a conflict management mechanism designed to freeze the status quo and promote trust through the application of cooperative confidence building measures (CBMs).
As negative trends have accelerated, there have been growing calls from within ASEAN to speed up the implementation process and negotiate a formal Code of Conduct (CoC) as envisaged by the DoC.
Talks are currently stalled because China has objected to ASEAN officials’ meeting among themselves before they sit down with their Chinese counterparts.
Vietnam and the Philippines have accused China of violating their sovereignty and called on Beijing to honor its rhetorical commitment to peace and stability in the South China Sea.
Ian Storey is a scholar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.