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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Op/Ed: China's Tibet Price: the South China Sea

August 7, 2010

Chris Devonshire-Ellis
2point6billion - 3 hours ago
August 6, 2010

The fallout from the recently held ASEAN summit
in Hanoi has far reaching implications for China
and the region, but also indicates rising
disquiet of China’s attempts to gain regional
assertiveness. With Vietnam currently chairing
ASEAN, the item that China had wanted to avoid
discussion over – ownership of parts of the South
China Sea – well and truly gained the glare of the spotlight.

That the region is disputed is beyond doubt, the
Paracel and Spratly Islands lie in these waters
and are claimed in all or in part by China,
Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia,
Indonesia, and Brunei, all of which have
stationed troops on various sections. The entire
land mass of the Spratlys is a little less than
five square kilometers, however in total the
Spratlys include 148 or so islets, coral reefs,
and seamounts scattered over an area of nearly
410,000 square kilometers of the central South China Sea.

The Paracel Islands, meanwhile, consist of over
30 islets, sandbanks or reefs, occupy about
15,000 square kilometers of the ocean surface,
and are also located in the South China Sea.
Currently under Chinese control, they are also
claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, the latter which
mirrors politically the Mainland Chinese
position. The islands are considered important
for several reasons: the fishing rights,
submarine military access to deep water ocean,
the potential for oil and gas exploitation, and
tourism. A successful Chinese claim will also
take the associated sea bed claims directly to
the coast of all of eastern Vietnam, and could
effectively seal Vietnamese shipping off from any
other sea access. Understandably, Vietnam is
highly nervous about this, while China wants to
control the waves in its own backyard.

China’s diplomatic solution to dealing with the
situation has been to flex its financial muscle
and to insist that negotiations over sovereignty
of the islands take place with it alone, on a
bilateral basis. That has left each individual
claimant out on a limb and has negated any
involvement of ASEAN, unilaterally a more powerful bloc, out of the picture.

China is not a member of ASEAN, and does not have
voting or sanction rights. Step forward to
Vietnam, the current ASEAN chair, and fast
forward to last month’s meetings in Hanoi.
Inviting the United States to participate, like
China, as an “observer,” the Hanoi meeting
quickly got on with business and brought to the
table the one topic China did not want to hear
about – the sovereignty of the South China Sea.
While attending the meeting, U.S. Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton was quick to observe from
the sidelines that the dispute was now high on
the agenda as part of America’s international
interests. Noting that commercial shipping passed
through the seas, she effectively indicated that
the issue was no longer one that China would be
able to unilaterally dictate. The repercussions
are going to rumble on, and have dealt a major
blow to Chinese assertiveness in the waters.

In part, China only has itself to blame. Although
Tibet was never mentioned as part of the dispute
in the South China Sea, and the Chinese position
over its sovereignty is both very clear and
undisputed by all attending ASEAN nations and
observers, it is obvious that China’s 60 year old
assertiveness towards regional disputes has
reached a plateau. Buddhism is still a strong
influence in many ASEAN member countries and the
plight of the Dalai Lama, while not officially
recognized or discussed, still causes regional
discomfort. Add to that skirmishes with Vietnam
in 1979, and still ongoing border disputes over
Tibetan territorial claims with India, and
China’s position as asserting more regional
sovereignty is now starting to be questioned.

While China has moved on from 1979 and the days
when it could engage in Southeast Asian diplomacy
down the barrel of a gun, its relative strengths
in terms of investment and financial muscle can
make it hard for individual nations to resist
overtures. Contracts have been dangled as
incentives to secure sovereignty, and used as
punishments through cancellations to show
displeasure. Collectively, ASEAN has more
bargaining power, and is a sizeable trading bloc
that can stand up to China’s belligerence. It
also diminishes the possibility of China
punishing errant neighbor countries by taking the
onus away from unilateral discussions. Add the
United States to that mix and the situation gets
less sustainable for China to press claims over
disputed lands. While the Chinese always claim to
have long memories, it’s a game now being played
by ASEAN members, and the situation over China’s
handling over the Tibet issue still reverberates.
While that issue is not going to be discussed,
the price to pay for it is now arriving – a
toughening of regional attitudes towards further
Chinese territorial claims and, specifically,
China’s influence over the South China Sea.
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