Progress Reported in South China Sea Disputes As Clinton Meets With SE Asian Nations

By Patrick Goodenough | July 21, 2011 | 5:00 AM EDT

sian foreign ministers from left, Vietnam's Pham Gia Khiem, South Korea's Kim Sung-hwan, Japan's Takeaki Matsumoto, Indonesia's Marty Natalegawa, and China's Yang Jiechi, hold hands during a group photo in Bali on Thursday, July 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

( – As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Indonesia Thursday for a series of meetings focused on Southeast Asia, a glimmer of progress was reported in efforts to defuse potentially dangerous territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

China and the 10-members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed in foreign minister-level talks in Bali on guidelines -- first drawn up nine years ago – that eventually would implement a code of conduct for activities in the resource-rich region.

Although the various disputes themselves remain far from resolved, China until now has insisted on dealing with them bilaterally – a situation obviously to its advantage when negotiating with much smaller and less influential claimants.

Recent months have brought an escalation in the area, particularly in a dispute between China and Vietnam over the hundreds of small isles and reefs known as the Spratlys. Vietnam in May said that Chinese ships had encroached on Vietnamese-claimed waters and severed cables attached to a survey vessel belonging to Vietnam’s state-owned oil and gas company.

Hanoi, which also accused Chinese naval ships of firing warning shots near Vietnamese fishermen in the Spratlys, has allowed rare anti-China public protests over recent months.

This week another claimant, the Philippines, angered China when a group of Filipino lawmakers traveled to an island claimed by both countries, in a visit designed to reinforce Manila’s claim.

A People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy warship launches a missile during a live-ammunition drill in the South China Sea in late July, 2010. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Pu Haiyang)

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their surrounding waters,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in response Wednesday, voicing “strong protest.”

Over the past two weeks, the U.S. Navy has held separate joint exercises with the Vietnamese and Philippine navies. A top Chinese general last Monday called the drills “inappropriate,” although U.S. officials have denied they were related in any way to the South China Sea disputes.

Apart from China, Vietnam and the Philippines, the complicated multilateral disputes also involve Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, Most are related to the presence, or potential presence, of energy and other natural resources in areas where countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) overlap. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea recognizes 200-nautical mile EEZs extending from nations’ shorelines.

(Beyond the South China Sea, China and Japan are also embroiled in a long running dispute over islands known as Senkaku in Japan, and Diaoyu in China, located roughly halfway between the Chinese mainland and Japan’s southern prefecture of Okinawa.)

China and ASEAN in 2002 signed a document called the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea. The signatories agreed to settle disputes through coordination and to refrain from activities that would escalate tensions, but it has been essentially ignored since then.

China’s representative at the talks in Bali Wednesday hailed the agreement as a “milestone” although it is not clear that the development signals any change in China’s determination to deal with the disputes bilaterally – and without U.S. involvement.

“We do not support raising bilateral disputes in multilateral settings and oppose the interference of external powers in this issue,” warned the Communist Party organ Peoples’ Daily this week, while an opinion piece on a Chinese government Web portal Wednesday cited U.S. attempts to “step up its presence in the Asia-Pacific region” and said the South China Sea disputes must not be “internationalized.”

Clinton’s visit to Indonesia will involve participation in several ASEAN and East Asia-related meetings, culminating on Saturday in the ASEAN Regional Forum. Asia’s top security gathering brings together the 10 ASEAN members – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei – and 17 other countries with interests in the region, including the U.S., China, India, Russia and Japan.

Tensions between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea were stoked during last year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, held in Hanoi, where Clinton laid down a marker to Beijing, declaring that freedom of navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea was a U.S. “national interest.”

Clinton at the time called for a peaceful resolution – “without coercion” – of the various territorial claims, and prompted an angry retort from her Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi.

“It is not China but some other country that is coercing regional countries to take sides on the issue,” he said in a clear reference to the U.S. “Asia can solve its own problems without interference by outside countries.”

A year later Clinton and Yang will again both take part in this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum on Saturday and, although Beijing objects to the South China Sea issue being formally discussed, it is expected to feature prominently on the agenda.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow