Seeking a Common Front Against China

Although the Jakarta meeting between the Indonesian and Philippine heads of state Tuesday supposedly centered primarily on cooperation in combating terrorism and other issues, it appears there might be a bigger issue at play – attempts by the nations surrounding the South China Sea to form a common front to counteract Chinese claims to the Spratly and Paracel chains of islets.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters Tuesday that the Spratlys could be turned into a “zone of cooperation” after his meeting with Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III. “I’m sure it is open for opportunities for cooperation, and no doubt we will hope that the South China Sea does not become a place of open conflict, but in fact, become a zone of potential economic cooperation.”

Aquino agreed, saying that talks between the countries should continue, and that there should be no unilateral move from any of them.

“With regards to the Spratlys, there is no room for unilateral action,” Aquino said. “Hopefully, with a like mind that this is a common problem and a common opportunity at the same time, we’ll be able to move a little more forward in terms of utilizing the resources of that particular region for the benefit of all the claimant nations.”

The two countries are the latest to try publicly to wriggle free of China’s all-inclusive grip on the string of islets, each of which would guarantee ownership because of the continental shelves that surround them. Last August, the government of Vietnam maneuvered the issue of the Spratlys back onto the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agenda, asserting its leadership of the treaty organization on the issue and in the process infuriating the Chinese. Japan, Russia and India are joining the United States in continuing to strengthen their relations with Vietnam over the islets and other issues.

The Jakarta meeting appears to have jolted Beijing awake. At almost the same time the two presidents were meeting, Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing told reporters, “China holds indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters.” Nonetheless, she added, “We have been committed to dialogue and consultation to properly solve the South China Sea dispute and work with relevant countries to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Hardly any of the islets are big enough to even build a facility on. But they are suspected of being rich in oil and gas. They thus are claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. The plethora of conflicting claims makes a solution particularly difficult, especially with China claiming them all on the basis of what it calls its historical right.

There is a second issue that brings in Indonesia and other nations. That is freedom of navigation across the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways through which much of the world's crude oil supplies are transmitted. Thus the interests of the United States, India and other nations come into play.

The countries bordering the South China Sea have until lately been in continuing disputes with each other over overlapping claims, which has weakened their position in relation to China. A common front against their giant neighbor to the north gives them considerably more clout.

The Spratlys have been the main bone of contention. Vietnam claims all of the Spratlys by right of historical occupation despite the fact that most of them lie closer to the Philippines and Malaysia. The Philippines claims most but not all on a mixture of principles – the archipelago principle, the 200-mile continental shelf, and occupation of empty territory. The Malaysian and Brunei claims are based on the continental shelf principle – the islands lie in seabed of less than 200 meters in depth extending from their coastline.

Vietnam currently holds about 20 of the islets, rocks and shoals, China about nine, the Philippines about eight, Malaysia three and Taiwan just one. The Paracels, which lie due east of Danang, are only claimed by Vietnam and China, which forcibly occupied them in the dying days of the South Vietnamese regime. Only China and the Philippines dispute the Scarborough shoal and Macclesfield bank.

Just last week, the Philippines lodged a complaint after two Chinese vessels drove an oil exploration survey ship away from a location in the Spratlys. The Philippine government ordered its Coast Guard to escort the survey ship following the incident. Recently, Vietnam has also complained about harassment from Chinese naval vessels.