The escalating dispute in the South China Sea is threatening to embroil the whole of Southeast Asia into violent conflict and make it “Asia’s Palestine”, according to Surin Pitsuwan, the outgoing secretary-general of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). In an interview with BBC last week, Pitsuwaran warned that the territorial dispute was entering its “most contentious” phase as an emboldened China stakes out its claim to the entire oil-rich South China Sea.
Pitsuwan attributes the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea to “the internal dynamics of China” which is facing slow economic growth and charges of widespread corruption. At the 18th Communist Party Congress held in Beijing last month, outgoing party boss Hu Jintao warned that corruption and a lack of political integrity “could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” despite China’s having become the world’s second-largest economy.
The once in a decade change in leadership of the Chinese Communist Party saw the elevation of Xi Jinping as the new party boss. To deal with a slowing economy and corruption, Xi is seeking to divert the people’s attention away with a series of provocative initiatives.
The first was the issuance of new passports featuring a map of China that includes virtually all the disputed islands in the South China Sea. This was certain to ignite controversy.
Vietnam was the first to respond by stamping “invalid” on the newly issued passports rather than recognizing China’s claim to the Paracel Islands that are within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Vietnam.
Because the new China map on the passport also includes the Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of China, India has issued visas to Chinese citizens with India’s own embossed version of its map.
Maps are a highly sensitive issue to the Philippines because China’s claim of ownership of the Kalayaan Island Group of the Spratly Islands near Palawan is based on an ancient Chinese map in the 2nd century, and its claim of ownership of the Scarborough Shoal near Zambales is based on a map in the 12thcentury Yuan Dynasty.
If the Philippine government accepts the new China passports with all its territorial claims, it will be viewed as tacit acceptance of China’s claim to the whole South China Sea.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago assailed China’s new passport as a “direct assault of our sovereignty and an act of aggression.” Santiago further added: “We will be well within our rights to deny them entry,” she said. “They cannot be allowed to go around our country bearing that offensive document.”
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario sent a formal protest letter to Beijing last week, calling China’s passport maps “an excessive declaration of maritime space in violation of international law.”
On November 28, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced it will no longer stamp its visas on China’s new electronic passports “to avoid the Philippines being misconstrued as legitimizing the nine-dash line (claim) every time a Philippine visa is stamped on such Chinese e-passport.” It will instead issue its visa on a separate piece of paper.
China further escalated tensions in the South China Sea on November 29 when the newly created province of Sansha City in Hainan Island, which Beijing vested with sovereign authority to govern the entire South China Sea, approved two laws giving its police the right to search vessels that pass through its territorial waters, effective on January 1, 2013.
What makes this new development a “very serious turn of events”, according to Asean’s Pitsuwan, is that the ante has been raised considerably. About $5.3 trillion of global trade passes through the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of which goes to and from U.S. ports. The US, which under Pres. Obama has made a “strategic pivot” to Asia, has an economic interest in preserving the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. It also has a political interest in preserving the credibility of its strategic alliances with countries like the Philippines.
On December 1, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) denounced China’s plans to board and inspect vessels in the disputed territories as “illegal and will validate the continuous and repeated pronouncements by the Philippines that China’s claim of indisputable sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea is not only an excessive claim but a threat to all countries…[It] deserves international condemnation by Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), our international partners and the entire community of nations.”
The DFA expressed concern that ships entering waters claimed by China, which is “virtually the entire South China Sea… can be boarded, inspected, detained, confiscated, immobilized and expelled, among other punitive actions.”
The Pag-Asa barangay in the Kalayaan island municipality of Palawan province has a population of 350 people, most of whom are fishermen. At least once a month, a Philippine Navy ship makes a pit stop at this island, just 125 miles from Palawan, to drop off fresh supplies for its island population.
What will happen when Hainan’s provincial patrol boats board the next Philippine Navy ship bound for Kalayaan Island in January of 2013?
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