Vietnam and the Philippines fume as Beijing appears ready to take full charge of disputed islands in the South China Sea
China is once again testing the mettle of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by landing aircraft on a newly built runway on Fiery Cross Reef among the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
The state-run Xinhua news agency last Wednesday released photos of two commercial jets on Fiery Cross – referred to by its Chinese name, Yongshu. It hailed the use of the reclaimed runway as a successful follow-up to another landing there four days earlier that had angered Vietnam. “The successful test flights prove that the airport has the capacity to ensure the safe operation of large civilian aircraft,” Xinhua said.
The news – and the boasting – prompted international concern, along with protests from Asean member-nations Vietnam and the Philippines, which are embroiled in territorial disputes with China over various islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
The three-kilometre runway on Fiery Cross Reef is one of three airstrips China has spent the past year building in the Spratly archipelago through the dredging of sand onto reefs and atolls.
Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over almost all of the sea has triggered territorial disputes with four of Asean’s 10 member-countries, the other two being Brunei and Malaysia. The Philippines and Vietnam refuse to even use the name “South China Sea” out of concern that it implies recognition of Chinese sovereignty over the islands in question.
Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said the landing on Fiery Cross was a serious violation of his country’s sovereignty over Truong Sa, the Vietnamese name for the Spratlys. Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that, if Beijing’s latest move went unchallenged, “China will take a position that an air-defence identification zone could be imposed.”
Beijing dismissed the protests, declaring its rule over the area “indisputable and self-evident” and that the test flights were “nothing more than an effort to better serve the needs of the great many vessels and seafarers using one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes”.
Asean, currently chaired by non-disputant Laos, has so far made no official response of its own, but the bloc cannot afford to remain silent on this issue, which threatens to jeopardise its relationship with the region’s sole superpower.
The South China Sea is indeed one of the world’s busiest maritime routes and its importance to trade extends well beyond the interests of any particular country in our region. As such, the territorial conflicts have become a cause for concern in Washington, which declared that the Fiery Cross landings would threaten regional stability. The US has pledged to refrain from intervening in the disputes, preferring action intended to ensure freedom of navigation in the sea. The presence of the US complicates matters for Asean, some of whose members are pushing Washington to play a greater role in containing Chinese territorial ambitions.
Asean has adopted mechanisms to deal with maritime disputes, including the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed with China in 2002. However, that document is non-binding and thus worthless in unravelling the knots in these disputes. Asean members are now negotiating on a binding code of conduct, but their inability or unwillingness to present a united front has so far stymied progress.
It is now the duty of Laos, as Asean chair – aided by fellow members that are in a position to liase with China on the bloc’s behalf – to try and bring the conflicting parties to the discussion table. Dealing with an expansionist China will not be easy, but the effort has to be made, lest regional disputes escalate into armed conflict.