Friday, September 21, 2012

Experts paint gloomy picture on South China Sea conflict

As China's military power grows, the potential for conflicts between members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) may increase, and finding solutions within the grouping could become more difficult, experts have said.

Andi Widjajanto, a defence expert at the University of Indonesia, said that as China grew to become more assertive, some Asean members would predictably lean toward the United States, while others would align themselves with the Asian superpower.

He said for Asean countries there would be no escaping China's shifting military strategy from defence to offence.

"The increase in China's military power will affect Asean unity, as the member states will be divided between the two main powers due to their different interests," Widjajanto said during an international seminar on security in the South China Sea.

Widjajanto said that besides its growing military power, China's economic power could lure countries in the region to come under its sphere of influence.

"For non-claimant countries, such as Cambodia, the interest does not lie in the South China Sea. They are more interested in what they can get from China's economic power," he said.

Amid the stand-off, Indonesia can play a significant role by becoming a go-between, offering diplomatic initiatives to prevent future tensions in the region.

Indonesia's influence was, however, limited, Widjajanto said.

"It is not possible to persuade China to withdraw its claim over the South China Sea and the role we can play would not produce a solution as such. But we could delay, and perhaps prevent, a conflict from occurring," he added.

Jose Tavares, director of Asean political and security cooperation at the Foreign Ministry, concurred with this view, saying that international and regional organisations could play a mediating role, but they were not best placed to find a permanent solution to the territorial dispute.

"They are not in themselves avenues for a definitive resolution of territorial disputes," Tavarez said.

During the past two years, tensions have heightened over the South China Sea issue.

In 2010, Vietnam accused China of cutting their exploration cables on one of its oil survey ships.

Tensions worsened when the Philippines announced their new exploration licenses for petroleum blocks off the country's Palawan Island in February 2012.

The exploration sparked protests from China.

In March 2012, the standoff escalated when 23 Vietnamese fishermen were arrested by Chinese officials for illegal fishing and poaching near the Paracel islands.

The most serious incident, however, occurred in April 2012, when several Chinese fishing vessels anchored at the Scarborough Shoal, followed by attempted arrests by the Philippines' Navy seals.

Ralf Emmers from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said the South China Sea standoff was worrying not only because it involved areas rich in natural resources but also due to its strategic value for international maritime trade.

Emmers said the conflict was sparked by US interest in preserving the principle of the freedom of navigation on the high seas, in light of China’s rising naval capabilities and renewed assertiveness.

He said increasing Chinese naval power could be used to back up its territorial claims.

"The United States could go to war in the Asia Pacific over the freedom of navigation principle. This freedom is a key principle over which the US will not allow any concessions," Emmers said.

While the US wanted this point to be highlighted at Asean forums, it remained highly problematic for China as they were concerned about the attempt at internationalising the South China Sea, preferring instead to discuss these matters bilaterally with smaller Southeast Asian claimants, Emmers added.-Asia News Network (September 21, 2012)

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