The South China Sea Challenge

The Cambodia Daily reported on 16 November 2012 that Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said “that leader from the 10-member ASEAN bloc and China would work toward a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to a decade-old Declaration of Conduct (DOC) on the South China Sea.” This is quite a different perspective from July 2012, when – to quote one of the many international voices – The Jakarta Globe had reported on 13 July 2012:

ASEAN Summit Breaks Up in Acrimony

Days of heated diplomacy ended in failure on Friday as splits over territorial disputes with China prevented Southeast Asian nations from issuing their customary joint statement.

Foreign ministers from the 10-member ASEAN bloc have this week tried to hammer out a final communique in Cambodia, which has held up progress on a draft code of conduct aimed at soothing tension in the flashpoint South China Sea.

China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich sea, which is home to vital shipping lanes, but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei among others have competing claims in the area.

The Philippines lambasted the failure at the summit, saying “it deplores the non-issuance of a joint communique… which was unprecedented in ASEAN’s 45-year existence.”

And this in spite of ASEAN’s priorities set for 2012 under the theme of “One Community, One Destiny” – with Cambodia holding the chair for this year, according to the ASEAN rules of rotation for this role.

Too different were recent experiences especially of the Philippines and of Vietnam related to conflicts in the South China Sea for them to accept the refusal of the Cambodian side to have the conflicts even mentioned in a closing joint communique. The Cambodian side strongly rejected the allegation by some others that the position of opposing to mention South China Sea conflicts were taken on behalf of China. On the other side, according to the China Daily Mail, China pledged more than US$500 million in soft loans and grants to Cambodia, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao thanked Cambodia for helping Beijing maintain good relations with ASEAN.

China gives Cambodia aid and thanks for ASEAN help

According to China’s Xinhua state news agency, Wen said China “will closely coordinate with Cambodia and support the country to make the upcoming series of meetings for East Asian leaders a success”. Those meeting are in Cambodia in November.

The failure to agree on a joint statement was considered to be serious failure for the unity of ASEAN, so that the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa urgetly visited Hanoi, Manila and Phnom Penh to find common ground: a six-point agreement was subsequently agreed upon by all governments of the ASEAN members: to work towards a “code of conduct” – while it remained open how this will happen: as a task to work on by the ASEAN member governments while considering the Chinese interest for bilateral negotiations instead of working out all problems according to a common ASEAN platform.

So we will have to look into the next couple of days and the future beyond, to see what the present ASEAN and Asia Pacific meeting will aim at and achieve.

The purpose of today’s writing is especially to present a map of the South China Sea. In various discussions during the last months I found that not many people had really looked at details of the map of the South China Sea – even this name mostly used in international media is different from the words used in several of the affected countries.

What the map shows is not only the different distances of the adjacent countries of the South China Sea, where China is only at the northern fringe of the sea which carries it’s name. Another important element is the demarcation of the 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone on its continental shelf, marked in the map – established according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – UNCLOS – of December 1982.

South China Sea

South China Sea

Vietnam said the contested places – where an Indian company was invited to do seabed oil exploration – lie within its 200-nautical-mile (370 kilometers) exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. All contested islands in the region where there are conflicting claims relating to a variety of different historical references, are situated close to the Philippines and to Vietnam, but much farther away from China.

Probably it will be neither geography nor historical records alone that will decide the future, but the outcome of difficult and protracted political negotiations. Surely the idea of ASEAN cohesion as the basis for these negotiations – or a multiplicity of bilateral consultations with China – will be one aspect to be observed in future.


The following texts provide an entry for further information and study about the complex of inherited problems and divergent interests:

PHL rejects China’s invented historical claim to Panatag Scarborough Shoal

Paracel, Spratly not on China’s official map

The Paracel Islands are called Xisha Islands in Chinese – 西沙群岛 – and Quần đảo Hoàng Sa in Vietnamese. The Spratly Islands are called 南沙群島 in Chinese and Quần Đảo Trường Sa in Vietnamese.

Natuna Islands

Natuna Islands

Indonesia’s Regional Diplomacy: Imperative To Maintain ASEAN Cohesion

Indonesia, with a hard-nosed appreciation of its strategic circumstances, recognises the changing equilibrium of power in Asia; it believes it is not in Indonesia’s interest to see an emerging great power dominate Asia, and certainly not Southeast Asia. In part, this is due to the end of comfortable certainties of the Cold War. China’s more aggressive posture on the South China Sea since 1995, particularly when Beijing declined to say whether it still held a traditional claim in the area of Indonesia’s biggest off-shore natural gas deposit near the Natuna Islands, remains a security concern.
Jakarta’s regional diplomacy has the following strategic imperatives:

  • First, the need for neighbors to have credible structures for consultation. Therefore, ASEAN cohesion and unity must be maintained with the aim of preserving its centrality in the management of regional order.
  • Second, who determines regional order? Will it be the countries of the region or the great powers? Indonesia does not want to be tied to a U.S or China dominated security web. It wants an independent middle-power role to assert itself both regionally and globally. A turbulent and weakened ASEAN will allow a vacuum leading to great power collision thereby leaving Indonesia on its own and vulnerable.
  • Third, ASEAN thinking on security has to be decisive in order to deal adequately with the long-term challenges a country like Indonesia faces in securing its maritime environment.

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