World / Asia-Pacific

South China Sea: How we got to this stage

By Fu Ying and Wu Shicun (Xinhua) Updated: 2016-07-06 17:33

The Road to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea

In the early 1990s, as the Cold War came to an end, the relations among the countries began to reconcile and economic development became the primary focus in the APAC region, China switched to a fast track toward establishing rapport with Southeast Asian countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 1990, it established official diplomatic relations with Singapore and resumed diplomatic ties with Indonesia. A year later, China launched a dialogue process with ASEAN, and in 1992, it started dialogue with ASEAN.

China then embarked on a path of confidence-building and all-round cooperation with ASEAN, guided by its new foreign policy of realizing and maintaining stability in Southeast Asia. In spite of all these developments, sovereignty over the Nansha Islands remained the most frequently debated issue between China and its ASEAN neighbors. China, based on its historical ownership of these islands and widely-recognized international documents, consistently defended its indisputable sovereignty over them as it had done in the past. On the other hand, China decided to copy here its policy of "setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development", which was practiced over the Diaoyu Island of the East China Sea, for the sake of cooperation and regional stability. However, China made clear this did not mean renouncing its sovereignty over Nansha Islands.

In 1994, China normalized its diplomatic relations with Vietnam. In 1995, ASEAN's membership extended to 10 countries with the admission of Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. In 1996, China became ASEAN's full dialogue partner, and in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, China lived up to being a responsible partner, winning wide praise and greater trust from ASEAN countries. In 1997, the first China-ASEAN Informal Summit was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at which both sides announced the establishment of "a 21st century-oriented partnership of good neighborliness and mutual trust".

Throughout the 1990s, the rapid development of the China-ASEAN relations largely masked seething contention in the South China Sea; nevertheless, disputes surfaced from time to time.

A major development was a new wave of unilateral occupation of the Nansha Islands and development of oil and gas in surrounding waters by some countries. Entering the 1990s, Vietnam occupied 5 more reefs, bringing a total of 29 islands and reefs under its control. By March 1994, Vietnam had illegally licensed out 120 oil blocks in the bulk of the Nansha and Xisha waters through bidding rounds. Malaysia seized Yuya Shoal (Investigator Shoal) and Boji Reef (Erica Reef) in 1999, and has been actively exploiting oil and gas and fisheries resources in surrounding waters. It accounted for half of the oil rigs among the disputed parties in Nansha areas, and its maritime law enforcement made the largest number of expulsions and arrests of Chinese fishermen in the 1990s.

The Philippines also orchestrated a number of provocations on China’s Meiji Reef (Mischief Reef), Huangyan Island, and Ren’ai Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).

The most extreme behavior was in reaction to China’s 1994 installation of fishery facilities and shelters on Meiji Reef. The Philippine Navy, in late March of the following year, blew up survey markers that China had installed on Wufang Atoll (Jackson Atoll), Xian’e Reef (Alicia Annie Reef), Xinyi Shoal (First Thomas Shoal), Banyue Shoal (Half Moon Shoal) and Ren’ai Shoal. Supported by Philippine Air Force planes, it also launched a raid on four Chinese fishing vessels working near Banyue Shoal, detaining 62 Chinese fishermen on board. On May 13, the Philippine military attempted to escalate the dispute by sending warships and planes to Meiji Reef, which then started an 8-hour standoff with the China Fisheries Law Enforcement Command’s No. 34 boat patrolling the surrounding waters. Regardless of the attacks and confrontations, China completed the installations.

n late April of 1997, the Philippine Navy landed on Huangyan Island, blew up the territory monument that China had erected, and planted a flag of the Philippines on the island. China reacted by sending marine surveillance ships to the waters of the island, which faced a standoff with Philippine warships that did not ease until a few days later on May 3. In subsequent years, the Philippines expelled, arrested and even shot at Chinese fishermen passing through the waters near Huangyan Island.

On May 9, 1999, the Philippine Navy deliberately ran its landing craft BRP Sierre Madre (LT-57) aground at Ren'ai Shoal, using hull leak repair as an excuse, and stayed there with regular rotated soldiers, refusing to withdraw ever since. China reacted with a series of strong diplomatic representations to no avail. On November 3 of the same year, the Philippine Navy repeated the behavior by running another decommissioned warship aground at Huangyan Island on the pretext of cabin leakage, blocking the southeast entrance to its lagoon. Already immune to this old trick, China applied great diplomatic pressure on Manila. On November 29, the then Philippine President Joseph Estrada ordered the withdrawal of the vessel.

Following the incident, the Chinese government, with a view to stopping the dispute from boiling over and maintaining the sound China-ASEAN partnership, resorted to all-round diplomatic efforts on the consultations with countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and especially the Philippines. Then, the tension began to ease. In March 1999, the working group on the development of confidence-building measures held their first meeting in Manila, at which both sides agreed, after multiple consultations, to exercise restraint and refrain from taking any action that may escalate disputes.

Meanwhile, ASEAN also follow closely on the situation in the South China Sea, and held multiple discussions with China. There was also a “Track 1.5” closed-door dialogue on the disputes participated by all the relevant parties including not only from mainland China but also Taiwan. An important consensus coming out of these dialogues was that to address the disputes over the sovereignty of the Nansha Islands, which were complicated and had no easy solutions, all parties concerned should resort to peaceful talks. China’s “setting aside disputes” proposal proved the most feasible option. They also acknowledged that as no delimitation of maritime boundaries would be possible without settling sovereignty disputes over islands and reefs in question, thus maintaining ambiguity on the maritime claims might be the best choice for the moment. These ideas and proposals provided the basis for future consensus between China and ASEAN. Adopted at the 1998 ASEAN Summit with an aim to enhance regional integration, the Hanoi Plan of Action proposed that efforts should be made to "establish a regional code of conduct in the South China Sea among the parties directly concerned". In order to promote confidence-building and good-neighborly friendship, China agreed in principle to start consultations with the ASEAN countries on a "code of conduct".

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