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Philippines, Vietnam need strong stance on South China Sea, analyst says

By Rene P. Acosta
Anti-China protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Hanoi, Vietnam in August 2011. They were protesting what Vietnamese see as China’s violations of their country's sovereignty in the South China Sea. [Reuters]

Anti-China protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Hanoi, Vietnam in August 2011. They were protesting what Vietnamese see as China’s violations of their country's sovereignty in the South China Sea. [Reuters]

MANILA -- The Philippines and Vietnam need to counter Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea and protect their territories, an Australian analyst on political and security issues in Southeast Asia said.

Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, called on the administration of President Benigno Aquino III and Hanoi to take steps to enhance their national sovereignty over their Exclusive Economic Zones [EEZ].

In his paper titled, “Security Cooperation in the South China Sea: An Assessment of Recent Trends,” declared that the nations’ weaknesses will only invite Beijing to act more assertively.

He also called upon the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] and the international community to diplomatically confront China.

Thayer, who has dual U.S. and Australian citizenships, raised his concerns over China’s behavior in the disputed territory through its actions and deliberate encroachments into the islands owned by the Philippines and Vietnam, according to international laws and agreements, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS].

He noted the wave of Beijing’s intrusions into the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group [KIG] last year, including the harassments by Chinese patrol boats of Filipino vessels that were conducting seismic surveys in the Reed Bank near Palawan.

Analyzing China’s behavior, Thayer said its incursions into the Philippine territory and even in areas occupied by Vietnam is a way of demonstrating its legal jurisdiction over the South China Sea, which it had falsely claimed through the so-called “9-dash line,” “9-dotted line” or “Ox tongue,” on a map submitted to United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in May 2009.

“China’s claim is based on the nine rocks it occupies in the Spratly archipelago. In other words, China claims that the rocks are in fact islands in international law and thus attract a 200 nautical mile EEZ,” he said.

“This is a legal fiction. Islands must be able to sustain human habitation on their own and have an economic function. Rocks, which do not meet these criteria, cannot claim EEZ or continental shelf,” he said, echoing the beliefs of marine specialists.

Beijing’s 9-dash mark cut into the EEZ of the Philippines and even Vietnam that have been firmly established by UNCLOS.

Still, the oil explorations by the Southeast Asian nations in the Reed Bank and other areas in the KIG and in Hanoi’s occupied territory were viewed by China as plundering of resources and a challenge to its existence. Song Enlai, chairman of the board of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation [CNOOC], had said his country had been losing about 20 million tons of oil annually or about 40 percent of China’s total offshore production because of such activities in the South China Sea.

Thayer said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in March 2011 declared Beijing’s foreign policy should serve the country’s economic development.

The pronouncement was immediately followed by a warning against any exploration in waters it claimed in the South China Sea, increased maritime patrols and the recruitment of additional 1,000 personnel for China’s marine service that would bring its staff to 10,000.

Big powers assistance

Since the South China Sea is not only being used by Southeast Asian countries but by other countries, including India and the United States and its big allies as a shipping route, these regional powers should assist the Philippines and Vietnam in countering China’s aggressiveness, according to Thayer.

“It is in the interest of the United States and its allies as well as India to assist both nations in capacity building in the area of maritime security. At the same time, this coalition of like-minded states should back ASEAN in its efforts to secure an agreement on a code of conduct for the South China Sea,” Thayer said.

He also said the ASEAN could draw up a “Treaty on Conduct in the South China,” which after its ratifications would open it to accession by non-member states.

However, the professor doubted whether such a treaty could work among the members of the ASEAN, since there are “nervous nellies” among its members.

Thayer disclosed an equally alarming analysis over China’s actions in the Reed Bank when it harassed Filipino vessels doing seismic surveys.


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