The territorial dispute in the South China Sea dominated discussion at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, over the weekend. The annual Shangri-La Dialogue focuses on regional co-operation, peace and harmony, particularly among ASEAN members.
But this year's sessions were heavily influenced by recent allegations of Chinese aggression towards Vietnamese and Filipino vessels in the disputed region. The area around the Spratly Islands is thought to be resource-rich, and countries have overlapping claims on the region.
Report: China Irritates Neighbors as Tensions Rise in South China Sea (Voice of America, 5 June 2011)
On 26 May, a Vietnamese survey vessel conducting oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea allegedly had its seismic cables cut by a Chinese ship. Hundreds of Vietnamese converged on the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi on Sunday to protest the perceived Chinese aggression. On Saturday, the Philippines also accused China of sending naval vessels to intimidate rival claimants in the disputed area, citing a string of incidents between February and May.
Defence ministers from claimant countries, including Malaysia, Philippines and
Vietnam, tackled the issue in a Shangri-La Dialogue session on maritime security. In a separate address, China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie also attempted to reassure delegates regarding China's intentions.
Report: Territorial dispute main concern at dialogue [Today, 6 June 2011]
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the event, Vietnam's Deputy Defence Minister Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh confirmed that Vietnam holds China responsible for last month's incident involving the Vietnamese survey ship. However, Nguyen stressed that the incident was a civilian and not military affair. Speaking at a media conference on the sidelines of the event, Nguyen added the incident "should be resolved through civilian means".
The Vietnamese ministers also confirmed that Vietnam has bought 6 Kilo class diesel-powered submarines from Russia worth US$3.2 billion (S$3.9 billion), but downplayed the purchase as merely part of Vietnam's existing defence upgrading plan.
Speech: China’s International Security Cooperation - General Liang Guanglie (Chinese)
(English Translation) [Shangri-La Dialogue, Fourth Plenary Session, 5 June 2011]
Report: China vows to back peace in South China Sea [Straits Times, 6 June 2011]
China's Defence Minister Liang Guanglie reassured delegates that China is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. He added that China stands by the 2002 Declaration of Conduct signed with ASEAN countries to peacefully resolve territorial and jurisdictional disputes.
Analysis: Navigating maritime disputes in Southeast Asia [IISS, 5 June 2011]
Report: US fears clashes in South China Sea: Gates [AFP, 4 June 2011]
But US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned "there will be clashes" in the South China Sea unless countries strengthen multilateral mechanisms to deal with competing claims.
The 2002 Declaration of Conduct between ASEAN and China is vaguely worded, and both Vietnam and the Philippines have requested a stronger and politically binding Code of Conduct to replace the existing agreement.
However, the involved ASEAN countries are not keen on steps such as a moratorium on further constructions or refurbishments on occupied Spratly islands, or an ASEAN-specific Code of Conduct that initially omits China.
Analysis: Beijing turns up heat in S. China Sea [Straits Times, 6 June 2011]
It may be that China wishes to strengthen its control of the area, and sees Vietnam and the Philippines as 'soft targets'; Manila in particular has been reluctant to risk a diplomatic confrontation with China, until recently. But China must also factor in the US reaction, as the Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States. Comments from Gates and other US officials indicate the US is keeping a close eye on the situation.