Power balance in South China Sea

your say August 17, 2018 01:00

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China wants military exercises and energy exploration with Southeast Asian nations in disputed waters, according to a draft document, but it insists on outside countries being excluded in what analysts say is a bid to diminish US influence. 

The draft document, as reported by Agence France-Presse, outlines different countries’ bargaining positions as they work towards an agreement, and analysts say it represents some initial progress. 

Beijing suggests that China and the 10 Asean states should carry out joint military exercises regularly. But the drills should not involve countries outside the region “unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection”. Beijing also suggests that China and Asean carry out joint oil and gas exploration, but again proposed that companies from outside the region be excluded.

I believe Beijing’s suggestions are part of efforts to expand its influence in the South China Sea, which it claims almost entirely, and to push back at Washington, which has backed countries with overlapping claims to the waterway. A code of conduct between Beijing and Asean in the strategic sea has been years in the making.

Interestingly, at a meeting of foreign ministers in Singapore this month, China and Asean announced agreement on the negotiating text for the code of conduct. Vietnam, which has offered some of the stiffest resistance to China in the sea, called for an end to the construction of artificial islands and military installations. But there was little serious resistance from other Southeast Asian countries, signalling how opposition to China’s aggressive expansion in the resource-rich waters has ebbed in recent years.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims to China’s in the sea. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar support China’s policy pronouncement towards Southeast Asian. Thailand has been neutral. Here in the Philippines, under then-president Benigno Aquino, we had been a leading voice against China’s expansion in the sea and used Asean events to pressure Beijing, but President Duterte reversed that policy. 

We do not entirely agree with China’s deal since we respect US bilateral cooperation with the Philippines, which is not meant to counter China in any way.

Jumel G Estranero

Defence Research Analyst & College Faculty

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