Friday, January 14, 2011

Renewed Tension in the South China Sea: A Maritime Security Dilemma

By Rommel C. Banlaoi
(This piece is culled from the author's forthcoming book, Renewed Security Tensions in the South China Sea:  Maritime Security Dilemma in the Philippines and the Asia Pacific). 

Security tensions over the disputed Spratly Islands have escalated over the past three years despite the adoption of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002. 
Though the DOC temporarily calmed the waters in the South China Sea by upholding the principle of amicable settlement of maritime boundary disputes, its “non-binding” character made the DOC fragile and tenuous.  Thus, disputes in the South China Sea continue to be major sources   of maritime security dilemma in Asia.  China’s growing naval power in recent years has exacerbated this regional maritime security dilemma, leading the other claimants to upgrade their naval assets and modernize their maritime capabilities.
The maritime security dilemma in the South China Sea raises the possibility of armed conflict in the Spratlys, something claimants and stakeholders alike are keen to avoid.  These renewed tensions and continuing maritime security dilemma in the South China Sea pose formidable challenges for the promotion of maritime security in Asia.
            When China signed the DOC, there was an international jubilation that China has shifted its paradigm  of relationship in Southeast Asia from bilateralism to multilateralism.  Since 2008, however, when China declared the Vietnamese-claimed Sansha City as an integral part of Hainan Province, there seems to be a retrogression of China’s attitude on the South China Sea.  There was a view that China was becoming more and more unilateral in its behavior in the South China Sea. 
            The USS Impeccable incident in March 2009 aggravated the fear of its Asian neighbors that China was  increasingly being more unilaterally assertive in advancing its claims in the disputed water.  
            Security anxieties of Southeast Asian claimants and stakeholders were heightened when China’s Ambassador to ASEAN, Xue Hanqin, opined that the South China Sea Disputes would not be on ASEAN agenda.[1]  ASEAN claimants have been wanting to put the South China Sea Disputes, particularly the Spratly Disputes, in the ASEAN agenda in order to increase its bargaining position with China.  Vietnam even wants the Paracels to be included in the ASEAN agenda but other ASEAN claimants just want to focus on the issue of the Spratlys.
            There is no doubt that China’s attitude on the South China Sea is a major factor that affects the behavior of  other claimants.  Behaviors of other claimants are, more often than not, reactions on China’s move in the South China Sea.  When the issue of Yulin (Sanya) Submarine Base in Hainan Province became controversial in mid-2008, it raised alarms in Southeast Asia as it was reported that the  Sanya Submarine Base had a Jin Class type ballistic missile submarine  that could enhance China’s sea-based deterrent capability. 
            As a reaction, Southeast Asian claimants became more serious in their programs to upgrade their naval capabilities.  

Though still financially challenged to acquire modern naval ships, the Philippines acquired in May 2009 three multi-purpose attack crafts to be deployed in the waters of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi.[3]   As part of Philippine naval modernization project, the Department of National Defence (DND) also ordered in May 2010 to rush the acquisition of two multi-role vessels from either Singapore and South Korea.[4]  PN underscores, however, that its recent acquisitions are meant to ameliorate the security dilemma by increasing Philippine naval capacity to promote maritime security cooperation in Southeast Asian rather than compete with its neighbors.

            Since other claimants in the South China Sea are reacting on China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, ameliorating maritime security dilemma will largely depend on how China will behave on the issue. China’s behavior on the South China Sea will be a litmus test of China’s peaceful development as a rising regional and global power.

[1] “Beijing:  South China Sea Disputes Not on ASEAN Agenda” (29 October 2009) at
[2] National Institute for Defense Studies, East Asian Strategic Review 2010 (Tokyo:  The Japan Times, 2010).
[3] AFP Modernization Office, “Multi-Purpose Attack Crafts” (3 July 2009) at <accessed on 26 December 2010>
[4]DND rushing acquisition of Navy vessels”, The Philippine Star (16 May 2010).

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