China unlikely to budge on thorny South China Sea dispute

“ASEAN does not even have a common stand on the South China Sea dispute and has a poor track record in settling issues like this,” said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.


Pressured at home and increasingly sensing a concerted regional effort to contain its territorial claims, China will be in no mood to make concessions on vast areas of the disputed South China Sea at two key east Asian summits in Indonesia this week.

China has the most extensive historic sovereignty claims in the potentially oil and gas rich South China Sea, including uninhabited atolls near the equatorial northern coast of Borneo.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are the other claimants to parts of the sea, and along with the United States and Japan, are pressuring Beijing to try and seek some way forward on the knotty issue of sovereignty, which has flared up again this year with often tense maritime stand-offs.

But China, growing in confidence and military power, will see no reason to back down, a foreign policy analyst said.

“It’s pretty prominent and pretty powerful now, so why back down now?” Kerry Brown, head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, a London foreign policy institute.

“It would be odd for it to do so when you consider how big its strategic needs are, its energy needs, and the potential that these disputed territories have to fulfil those,” he added.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is attending first a summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), followed straight after by the East Asia Summit on November 19, both on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

The East Asia Summit has been held every year since 2005. It gathers senior officials or leaders from Southeast Asia, China, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand. US President Barack Obama is also due to attend this year.

Diplomats say the South China Sea will most likely be raised during the two meetings.

Claimants to the sea have been trying to cool tension after a series of disputes this year, including when Chinese patrol boats threatened to ram a Philippine-contracted survey ship in the Reed Bank in March.

China and Vietnam last month signed an agreement seeking to contain the dispute, but the wording was vague and contained little new that the two sides had not agreed on previously.

“It’s really only a question of time before we see another incident of the kind we saw earlier this year,” said Ian Storey, a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“China opposes any discussion of the issue at these kinds of forums,” he added. “It opposes the ‘internationalisation’ of the problem. That’s a limiting factor because China is obviously the key player in all of this and if it doesn’t want to talk you’re not going to make much headway.”

China insists the dispute can only be resolved by bilateral talks between the parties directly concerned and has reacted angrily to attempts by the United States or old enemy Japan to get involved. India too has entered the frame via an oil exploration agreement with Vietnam.

With US bases to the east in Japan and South Korea, China fears its southern flank could be threatened if the United States stepped up its naval presence in the South China Sea, even if, as Washington says, it only wants to protect freedom of navigation.

Expecting ASEAN to play a role could also be wishful thinking.

“ASEAN does not even have a common stand on the South China Sea dispute and has a poor track record in settling issues like this,” said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

China’s state-run press has given wide coverage to the dispute.

Last week, the overseas edition of the People’s Daily warned East Asian countries against letting the United States poke its nose in prickly questions like the South China Sea.

“Everything shows that the United States will provoke the contradictions which exist between countries in this region for its own benefit,” it said in a commentary.

As well, more than 80 per cent of respondents to an on-line survey the Global Times’ website said force should be used to resolve the issue, putting a degree of public pressure on the government not to surrender or weaken its claims.

“Whatever happens, I hope the country does not let its people lose face over this,” wrote one on-line reader of the popular tabloid, run by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily.

A former Chinese naval officer and academic at China’s National Defence University warned in the Global Times on Friday that China risked “leaving fallow one’s own land” if it were not more active in the South China Sea.

“Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have all established a presence. We should be more proactive in strengthening our presence and control,” Fan Jinfa wrote.