The South China Sea, roiled by competing claims to the Spratly and other islands, should be in for a period of relative quiet following recent encounters, demonstrations and diplomatic exchanges. However the events of recent weeks and months will leave a lasting mark on the perceptions and attitudes of all the players, particularly those in Southeast Asia.
Of the most recent developments, perhaps the most significant but least noticed in the international media was Singapore's sharp reaction to the activities of a Chinese maritime patrol vessel, the Haixun-31. Singapore has no island claims in that sea and has generally tried to keep on good terms with China despite its key importance to US military capability in the region.
However it does have a very obvious interest in freedom of navigation as a trading and shipping hub. Indeed Singapore's veteran diplomat and lawyer Tommy Koh was president of the 1980-82 conference that resulted in the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, which laid down rules for determining sea boundaries, navigation and sea resources and seabed rights. China ratified this treaty, which came into force in 1994, in 2006, but opted out of its disputes procedure. The United States signed it but Congress has yet to ratify it.
Singapore was angered by the docking of the Haixun 31 in Singapore on June 19 after a journey which took it through the South China Sea and hence through most of the disputed waters and close to some of the disputed islands and rocks. It had been presented to Singapore as the friendly and long-arranged port visit by a non-military vessel. In practice it was no such thing as China's own media itself proclaimed. The People's Daily, official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, said the vessel was carrying out checks on "oil rigs, stationary ships' operations in constructions and surveys…and will conduct checks on foreign ships navigating, anchored and operating in Chinese waters".
In other words the Haixun was set up for just the kind of Chinese harassment of exploration work and fishing activities off their coasts of which Vietnam and the Philippines have been bitterly complaining.
Singapore not only reiterated its own interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but called on China to "clarify its claims with more precision as the current ambiguity as to their extent has caused serious concerns in the international maritime community."
Of course China has no intention of such clarification beyond a general assertion to all islands, rocks and banks in the sea and a vague demarcation line which comes close to the coasts of the adjacent littoral states, well within the 200 miles Exclusive Economic Zones to which they say they are supposedly entitled under the law.
The Haixun voyage thus appears to have backfired on China and forced Singapore into a more openly adversarial posture.
Likewise China's actions have forced the United States to respond to Philippine requests that it reaffirm its commitment to that nation's defense. The US has always taken the position that it is neutral on South China Sea claims and as former colonial ruler had never claimed the Spratlys (which were claimed by the French as part of Vietnam). However Philippine annoyance at what many saw as the US's distancing itself from its former possession combined with pressure on President Benigno S.Aquino III to be seen to respond to repeated Chinese harassment pushed the US to sound more supportive. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed "we are determined and committed to supporting the defense of the Philippines" and promised US help to modernize the pitiful Philippine navy and improve its intelligence capability in its waters. The two countries have also launched a small joint naval exercise involving two US missile destroyers.
Meanwhile China and Vietnam have decided to cool things for the moment. After weeks of acrimony and more, they managed a high level meeting on June 26 between Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo and Vietnamese deputy Foreign Minister Ho Xuan So, at which they promised to resolve territorial disputes peacefully and in accordance with the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea disputes agreed between ASEAN members and China in 2002 – though China insists that the matters are all bilateral and do not involve ASEAN itself. Both sides agreed to "strengthen public opinion to prevent words and actions" from exacerbating the situation. Hence one can expect, for now, a cessation of Chinese harassment of Vietnam's exploration activities and an end to the officially tolerated, if not sponsored, anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam.
But nothing will now stop naval buildups by all parties, an extension of US naval cooperation to Vietnam and the strengthening of US ties with other littoral states including Indonesia and Singapore which lie just outside Chinese claimed areas but too close for comfort.