Wednesday, November 21, 2018

New factors complicating South China Sea disputes

China's continued reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea are undermining mutual trust and regional peace and stability, said experts.
The increasing deployment of drones and underwater unmanned vehicles to the South China Sea is further complicating the situation, while regulations on the use of such vehicles and a code of conduct for claimants remain absent.
Scholars attending a seminar on the South China Sea in Da Nang City, Vietnam, last week raised concern that increasing militarization and presence on the sea, under the seabed and in the air remain the biggest threat to the South China Sea. Such activities have been taking place at very fast pace. Dual facilities under the name of civilian works, such as meteorological stations, have also been expanded rapidly.
China's new moves raise concern
China's deployment of drones and underwater unmanned vehicles to the South China Sea to improve real-life combat ability, collect samples from the seabed and reconnaissance have raised concerns among neighbor nations. In particular, the increasing use of underwater unmanned vehicles to the South China Sea is fueling new legal debates. The lack of international standards in the use of such vehicles is likely to increase the risk of conflict in the future.
"In 2018, China continued to consolidate the infrastructure on its seven artificial islands and progressively militarize these features; it deployed electronic jamming equipment and installed surface to air and anti-ship missiles,' stated Professor Carlyle Thayer at the University of New South Wales.
Though the South China Sea has appeared to be quieter recently, various dangerous incidents raise risks of miscalculation. The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Decatur had to maneuver to avoid a collision on September 30 after a Chinese warship came within 45 yards of its bow as the American ship transited Gaven Reef of the Spratly. CCTV on September 29 reported that Chinese Navy deployed tens of fighters and bombers to join a live fire drill on the South China Sea. Experts expect that Chinese leaders may choose to raise tensions in the South China Sea again to distract domestic criticism from the trade war between the US and China.
The Philippines has quietly pivoted back to the US since Beijing has not exercised self-restraint despite President Rodrigo Duterte's efforts to show goodwill toward China.
China has recently opened weather observation stations on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, did not think that the stations would be used to "provide public service' as China said. "Weather stations on military bases also serve the purpose of the military base,' he stated.
Effective COC should be concluded soon
Scholars agreed that the situation on the South China Sea demand China to give up excessive claims which violates international laws, including UNCLOS 1982, so as to narrow disputes, gradually solve disputes by peaceful means. China and Asean have attempted to negotiate the COC, but this process may take years to be finalized. China and Asean members drew up a Framework COC and then reached agreement on a Single Draft South China Sea Code of Conduct Negotiating Text.
Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has recently brought together prominent experts on maritime law, international relations, and the marine environment to propose a blueprint for a South China Sea COC. Any proposal to manage the disputes needs goodwill of claimants to come into practice. Besides COC, Asean could also actively propose other initiatives for the sea, such as a code for unplanned encounters at sea or standards for treating plastic waste at sea, experts said.
Since certain countries have different interpretations of UNCLOS 1982 so as to avoid abiding the Arbitral Tribunal's decision, scholars suggest Asean to actively invite other countries to join dialogues in order to reach common interpretation and application of UNCLOS on the South China Sea as well as other regulations on freedom of navigation.
On 12 July 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal hearing the claims brought by the Philippines against China issued a unanimous Award that found against China. According to the ruling, there is no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within "nine-dash line". Also according to the ruling, China violated its obligations to refrain from aggravating or extending the parties disputes during the pendency of the settlement process.
In their annual summit to be held in Singapore in mid-November, leaders of Asean countries and and China will touch upon developments in the South China Sea amid China's continued reclamation and militarization in the sea.
Asean leaders are expected to adopt a statement expressing concern over China's illegal activities in the South China Sea, because the activities, including the completion of artificial islands in the sea are undermining mutual trust and regional peace and stability, said experts./



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