After many years of peaceful agreements and conflict resolution attitudes from the ASEAN free trade area countries, 2012 was filled with heated discussions and humiliating summit meetings. The core of all these disagreements was the South China Sea conflict. The islands situated in this territory called the “cow’s tongue” are rich in natural resources, trade routes, and have been military strategic points for several years. The fact that China claims sovereignty over this territory has raised many concerns among the neighboring countries, with the Philippines and Vietnam being the strongest opponents. In addition to these disputes, the U.S. has started a “pivot” military strategy towards Asia, increasing tension in the area. Will this divide the ASEAN countries and start a new conflict?
The South China Sea is about 1.4 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, and it is one of the most profitable fishing spots in the world. It consists of hundred islands, most of which are uninhabited, making the conflict even more difficult to solve. Who has sovereignty over these islands? It is not an issue limited to land, but also to natural resources. Each country in the region has an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) determined in 1982 by the
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that includes 200 nautical miles from the coast of each nation’s territory. The UNCLOS recognizes the “common heritage of the world’s oceans” and with a set of laws defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the oceans. The law is not clear, however, on the matter of islands.
With increasing international trade coming from Asia’s industrialization and the oil imports, the South China Sea has become a major economic hub. “Just more than half of the top ten shipping container shipping ports are located in or around the South China Sea” according to David Rosenberg, professor of political science at Middlebury College. It is very important, therefore, that this remains a free access territory, where no restrictions are imposed where commerce can continue freely.
Furthermore, the rapid urbanization of coastal cities in China has fostered huge competition over the resources. The resources are scarce, and in order to continue growing and developing, China needs as many as they can obtain. But the South China Sea has oil reserves that could be an interesting opportunity for other rapidly emerging economies such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. Some countries -Vietnam with the collaboration with India and China-have already started cooperating with other nations in order to develop oil in disputed waters angering those left out.
Other confrontations that have taken place are related to the interception of illegal fishing vessels in the region. The Philippines claimed that eight Chinese fishing vessels were caught illegally in their waters. This is one of the greatest potential conflicts, since 1.5 million people in the area depend on fishing and due to overexploitation in the South China Sea’s overlapping water territories.
These disputes are of great importance for the ASEAN countries, which are in need of resources to continue growing, but also for other high income countries. The fact that it is one of the busiest international sea-lanes, and a strategic link between the Pacific and Indian Ocean, intensifies the need for the region not to close its waters. The U.S. has stated its intentions of making a “pivot” movement – a shift of their forces and strategy – towards Asia, and this conflict is putting a lot of pressure on the emerging economic power. Vietnam and the Philippines have asked the U.S. to increase its presence in order to counterbalance China’s rising economic power. The latter even doubled its defense budget in 2011 and considered a five-year joint military exercise plan with the U.S. Despite pressure from some Asian countries for more American presence, other countries believe that they should reduce their influence on the region. In particular, China is insisting on bilateral agreements, while rejecting any of the UN mechanisms for arbitration as well as the ASEAN countries cooperation with external actors. These bilateral agreements entail cooperation of the countries that are affected by the conflict in making arrangements on territorial issues. The problem here is that China has greater power than the other emergent countries, and these fear an unjust territorial distribution.
Unlike NATO for developed countries, ASEAN countries do not have any military cooperation, so it will be difficult for solutions to arise since each country will defend its own interest. With the emerging conflict, fears of a new “Cold War” in Asia have started to materialise. Experts, however, believe that common interests between the Asian nations arising from economic integration will provide an incentive to harmonize the management of the resources and resolve the other conflicts. China and Vietnam, for example, have started to cooperate on a common fishery zone. Is this enough to start resolving the conflicts? One can only hope that the ASEAN cooperate more enthusiastically again and find a solution to the sovereignty problems in the South China Sea so that the development of the region can continue unabated.