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The code of conduct for the South China Sea is difficult to sign

By Celia Lamkin

In the past, the South China Sea situation may have seemed "quiet," but, in fact, there were many underground waves. Because there were many hot spots in the world, the world paid little attention to the situation in this region.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has a profound impact on Southeast Asian countries, especially those directly involved in the South China Sea dispute. These countries fear that the conflict in Eastern Europe will spread to Southeast Asia. They fear the possibility of a similar conflict breaking out in the South China Sea region.

In addition, the relationship between the world's two superpowers, the U.S. and China, is strained by military and economic competition, especially after the recent hot air balloon brouhaha. Both are deploying large numbers of forces in the South China Sea, leading to the threat of war looming in the Taiwan Strait.

All of those issues affect the situation in the South China Sea, and the situation is heating up day by day.

In January, the Indonesian government approved natural gas exploration from Tuna Block, part of the world's largest untapped natural gas field. Indonesia maintains that the gas field is entirely located in its exclusive economic zone.

However, China insists the gas field is within the so-called "nine-dash line," the infamous basis of the communist nation’s claim to sovereignty over South China Sea. Beijing sent a protest note to the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and deployed a show of force in the field by sending civilian ships and coast guard to the exploration area with the aim of threatening target. The Indonesian Navy responded by dispatching several ships to these waters.

The nine-dash line, which China arbitrarily invokes, has no legal basis. It violates international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS. On July 16, 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and rejected China’s "historic rights" claim to the nine-dash line. Despite criticism from the international community, however, China has not ceased its ambition to "take over the South China Sea.”

China has deployed similar intimidation and gray zone tactics with other Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea region, constantly harassing Malaysia in the Kawasari mine area of Sarawak state.

Ray Powell, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and a researcher who monitors the activities of Chinese ships, wrote on Twitter that from June 21, China's Haiyan Dizhi Ba Hao probe and its escort Coast Guard 5202 had advanced into Luconia Shoals located within Malaysia's EEZ.

Previously, the survey ship Xiang Yang Hong 10 and a flotilla of escort ships violated Vietnam's EEZ for 28 days, prompting the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry to protest.

Tensions between the Philippines and China near Ayungin Shoal or Second Thomas Shoal continued in April, less than a year after previous provocations.

In June 2022, the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia prevented the Philippine military from approaching the outpost of BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal. In September and October 2022, China sent a support fleet and a militia ship to prevent oil and gas exploration in this area.

On Feb. 6 this year, the Philippine Coast Guard reported that a Chinese coast guard ship shined a laser at a Philippine ship in the Second Thomas Shoal area, temporarily blinding Filipino sailors on board. The incident prompted Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to summon Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to express his "deep concern" over "the increasing frequency and intensity of actions by China against the Philippine Coast Guard and our Filipino fishermen.”

In 2022 alone, the Philippines filed nearly 200 notes protesting China's aggressive actions in the South China Sea. China recently set up supermarkets at military bases on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, the three features in the Spratly Islands that have been illegally occupied by China.

According to CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a Washington-based think tank, China has reclaimed seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, creating more than 3,200 hectares of new land since 2013.

China reportedly continues to fortify the islands with advanced military bases as well as missile systems, radars, roads, ice and jet fighters. Observers see this move as an attempt to create an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" for its air and naval forces in the South China Sea.

In March 2022, Admiral John C. Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef appeared to be fully militarized and equipped with missile systems as well as fighter aircrafts. In December 2022, Bloomberg reported that China was building artificial islands on the features of Eldad Reef, Lankiam Cay, Whitsun Reef and Sandy Cay.

Such aggressive actions trigger a suspicious attitude toward China.

The recent completion of the EEZ delimitation agreement between Vietnam and Indonesia has shown that the South China Sea dispute can be resolved by peaceful means if the disputing parties seriously comply with international law and UNCLOS.

In the current complicated context in the South China Sea, fully respecting and complying with UNCLOS, plays an even more important role in maintaining peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation in the region.

UNCLOS, which is considered the constitution of the oceans, is clear about almost everything related to the sea. Coastal states have a territorial sea extending 12 nautical miles off their coasts. So do the islands. Countries also have resource zones spanning at least 200 nautical miles dedicated solely to catching, exploiting and harvesting deep-sea resources.

Despite being a party to UNCLOS, China disregards these provisions.

China exercises regional “rising power” over marine resources by preventing Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines from developing their oil and gas fields, unless they accept Beijing’s terms. China's aggressive actions in the sea have opened the door for other countries to flout the rule of law, leading to a world in which international law has little to do with the sea. China backs its maritime claims with naval fleets, coast guard and maritime militia.

With such aggressive actions and violating international law, most ASEAN people doubt China's goodwill in negotiating the Code of Conduct. Can a great power that says one thing and does another be a reliable partner to sign a code of conduct in the South China Sea?

Dr. Celia Lamkin is the founder and global chairperson of the National Youth Movement for the West Philippine Sea, a non-partisan and transglobal organization that advocates for the preservation of the Philippines’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.

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