Chen Shui-bian, on his last legs as Taiwan’s president, barnstorms the South China Sea’s disputed islands
Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's weekend visit to Taiping Island in the Spratlys has once again heightened tensions in the South China Sea, only a week after China and Vietnam agreed to resolve their disputes over the area diplomatically.
Chen's Taiping visit, aboard a Taiwan Air Force C130 Hercules that landed on a 1,150-meter runway on an island that is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, is the latest in a series of disputes that have increased tensions in the region over the Spratlys, a flock of islets in the South China Sea that are claimed in part or entirely by every country surrounding the South China Sea -- China, Taiwan and Vietnam (all), the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei (partly). All but
Chen’s landing, which involved the inspection of troops and the opening of a new runway, has been labeled by political analysts and the Taiwanese media as an electioneering stunt to increase the chances of presidential candidate Frank Hsieh of Chen's independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ahead of March 22nd elections. Chen is to step down in May after eight years as president.
But vote-getting trip or not, it has particularly served to anger
Despite the fact that the islands are nothing more than specks that are incapable of supporting life on any scale, control over the sea lanes that run past them is crucial, not just to the six claimants but to Northeast Asian nations and the United States as well. Perceived large oil and gas deposits in the area and rich fishing grounds have made this string of otherwise small islets, reefs and rocky outcroppings very valuable to the nations involved.
Fully a fourth of the world's crude oil and oil products flow through what amounts to the globe’s second busiest sea lane, as well as gas, coal and iron ore. Control is important to
Chen’s mischief-making aside, the pressure ratcheted up last March when
During the same month,
The use of force was unusual since in recent years Vietnamese vessels have usually been only detained for straying into contested waters. Official Chinese media were initially quiet about the clash, possibly out of a desire to keep the clash from escalating.
Military squabbles over sovereignty are not new, however, and have been going on for decades.
Indeed it was the military that heightened tensions again in November when large military exercises by China in the South China Sea close to the Paracels sparked protest from Vietnam.
Dung called for the two countries to continue exchanging opinions in order to find suitable areas and means of cooperation over their disputed and overlapping territories in accordance with international law to find solutions that are amenable to both parties. Wen said he hoped the issue could be resolved by putting maritime boundary claims aside and using a joint approach to exploit the resources of the area.
Despite these conciliatory statements, tensions increased yet again on December 4 when Vietnamese state media criticized
Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said, "This act violates
They noted that protestors had placards with slogans and T-shirts emblazoned with maps of the Spratlys already made up. In addition the demonstrations were allowed to form and continue for over an hour before being quietly dispersed. Cyberspace filled up with Chinese and Vietnamese bloggers airing nationalistic views and slamming each other over conspiracies to steal energy.
The air seemed to clear during the second China-Vietnam Steering Committee on Cooperation meeting on January 22-26 in
This seems to put
The perceived large undersea oil and gas deposits are a major issue for
The complaint over the PetroVietnam-BP-ConocoPhillips project was not the only one
For the Asean nations, some fear of China's intentions were assuaged in November 2002 when Asean and China signed the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to resolve disputes in the region peacefully through diplomatic means. The Declaration, while displaying good intent, is non-binding and this fragile. As the events of 2007 between
The agreement relies largely on the signatories allowing regional concerns to take precedence over their own national interests, something which to date they have largely shown a disinclination to do. The ten points in the agreement remain inadequately defined and rely largely on bilateral discussions to settle disputes.
One outcome of the declaration has been the establishment of a joint seismic exploration program through the national oil companies of
Other plans, such as the proposed Pan-Tonkin Gulf Regional Economic Cooperation scheme, are in the works. An offshoot of the Asean-China Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004, the idea was floated in 2006 and has reportedly received the support of high level Chinese leadership. Pushed by the Guangxi Autonomous region in Southeastern China, the scheme would like to see greater integration between the economies
In a presidential statement Chen called for a "Spratlys Initiative" to find a peaceful solution to disputed claims and promote marine conservation. Chen was quoted in the statement as saying, "Facing complicated and sensitive territorial and sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea,