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Time for China to go it alone?

A Chinese coast guard vessel patrols near a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

A Chinese coast guard vessel patrols near a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Beijing will no longer allow its legitimate rights to be wantonly encroached upon by its neighbours

In recent days, Vietnam has been disturbing China's routine drilling operations in the waters off Zhongjian Island, part of China's Xisha Islands. In a move to attract the world's attention, Vietnam also invited some international journalists to the operating site.

Surprisingly, the Vietnamese government also encouraged anti-China demonstrations and even acquiesced in the riots against foreign enterprises, mostly Chinese investments in the country, which resulted in the loss of innocent lives and huge damage to property. The Vietnamese move, which finally turned out to be a farce against itself, only proved the government's lack of deep thinking about the situation. After all, the drilling site is just 17 nautical miles from China's Zhongjian Island, yet 150 nautical miles from Vietnamese coastline. As pointed out by Chinese officials time and again, Vietnamese vessels have to sail a long way across the stormy sea to disturb the normal operations of the Chinese company on the doorstep of China.

Meanwhile, there has also been much speculation about the timing of China's drilling operations and the real intention behind it. Some say that by starting the drilling operations just days after the visit of President Barack Obama to Asia, China is flexing its muscles to neutralise the influence of the United States in the region. Others have taken it as response to Vietnam's recent purchase of a patrol vessel from Japan. There are even those who say that China is resolved to act unilaterally in the South China Sea, with drilling operations just a starter on China's set menu.

However, people will not understand China correctly if they do not look at a longer timeframe. No one can deny the fact that under the leadership of the communist party, Chinese foreign policy has been very stable and consistent over the years. Although there have been many modifications and adjustments, the fundamentals have remained unchanged over the years after opening up to the outside world. Therefore, to understand what China is doing today, we have to review what China has done in the past.

It is now 20 years since the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping put forward the constructive initiative of shelving disputes and seeking joint development at the Third Plenary Meeting of the Central Advisory Committee in October 1984. Over the past 20 years China has upheld this initiative and made unremitting efforts to promote it, in the hope that some day it would be made a reality and put into practice.

To demonstrate its good will, China embarked on negotiations with the members of Asean to draw up a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. These negotiations finally led to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea in 2002, which has contributed a lot to the peace and stability of regional waters. China has made every effort to push for the full implementation of the DOC.

But when the Guidelines for the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea were eventually agreed by the contracting parties it was already 2011 - nine years had passed. Despite all the efforts, the cooperation stipulated in the DOC and the Guidelines has not been really started yet. Predictably the low-sensitivity fields of cooperation, as clearly listed in the DOC, have not been seriously taken by some signatories.

There was a glimmer of hope in 2005 when state oil companies of China, Vietnam and the Philippines signed an agreement on joint seismic research in some areas of the South China Sea. This agreement, which can be seen as a step toward joint development, was actually an experiment in low-sensitivity cooperation. But despite the strong feasibility of putting the agreement into practice, the cooperation was halted abruptly when the new government of the Philippines refused to accept the former government's deal with other nations. Many other initiatives have since been put forward by China, but few have received a positive response.

To get the whole picture of the situation, we also need to look at what other littoral states have done at sea in the past 20-plus years. Vietnam and some other countries have unilaterally signed many contracts with Western companies and drilled many wells in the southern areas of the South China Sea, where China also has legitimate claims. More than 50 oil wells operated by Vietnam fall within waters that are disputed with China.

China lodged diplomatic protests in the face of these infringements upon its legitimate rights, but did not take any forcible measures to stop them. As pointed out by an China Foreign Ministry official, it is not that Beijing did not have the ability to stop the encroachment, but China values the peace and stability in the South China Sea more highly and was willing to show self-restraint.

Many equitable and feasible scenarios for joint development have been laid out and promoted by China and widely acknowledged by the international community, sometimes including the US.

Now China might have had enough. It will not allow its legitimate rights to be wantonly encroached upon by its neighbours any more. Vietnam's reckless move of forcibly disturbing the normal operations of a Chinese company in areas without any dispute is likely to trigger new thinking from Beijing about exploiting the resources in the South China Sea. If Vietnam continues its troublemaking, China will probably have no option but to weigh the possibility of blazing a trail and drilling alone in some sea areas where disputes exist between China and Vietnam.

Lu Yang is a Beijing-based scholar.


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