South China Sea - 2013 Developments

7/4/2017| 11:18

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters 22 August 2013 that China is interested in protecting Cambodia from "outside" interests. Hor Namhong said ASEAN ministers should consider a closer relationship with China as they head into talks aimed at easing tensions over the South China Sea.

Cambodia's close relationship with China came under scrutiny in 2012, during a major ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh. Cambodia appeared to be working in China's interests over the South China Sea issue, where several ASEAN nations have disputed claims with their larger neighbor[which Cambodia does not]. At the end of that meeting, ASEAN ministers were, for the first time in history, unable to agree on the language of a joint declaration, a signal of ongoing controversy among ministers.

A United Nations arbitration tribunal convened in The Hague in mid-July 2013 to look into a complaint lodged by the Philippine government questioning the legality of China's claims. The arbitral tribunal appointed to hear the case was formally constituted and held its first meeting on July 11 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The five-member tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea approved a set of rules to look into the legal challenge the Philippines launched against Beijing in January 2013. Pursuant to Article 287(3) of UNCLOS, arbitration under Annex VII is the default means of dispute settlement, at teh Permanent Court of Arbitration. The Philippine Foreign Ministry released an eight-point statement on 15 July 2013, saying that China's hard-line position makes it impossible to continue bilateral discussions and had forced the Philippines to finally resort to international arbitration. The international arbitration procedure requires agreements of both parties. Without China's agreement, it won't work.

In 2002, ASEAN did work as a unified group and in negotiations with China got a declaration on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that had as its final clause that the ASEAN members and China should work towards a binding Code of Conduct," he said. "And that's what the ASEAN ministers have been pushing for. But China, particularly with a new leadership, has shown little interest in actually negotiating such a binding code. China has said it is in no rush to negotiate a Code of Conduct. It is also opposed to a multilateral solution to its territorial disputes, preferring to hold only bilateral talks with its ASEAN neighbors.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations[ ASEAN] appeared to make progress on addressing territorial disputes in the South China Sea in July 2013. Following meetings in Brunei, the group announced that China had agreed to discuss a set of rules known as the “code of conduct” to avoid conflict in the disputed waters. The joint communiqué emphasized adhering to an 11-year-old non-binding agreement among China and the 10-member states to peacefully handle competing claims in the South China Sea. It also called for “formal consultations” on a code of conduct in September in Beijing. The talks were expected to take place among lower level officials and focus on steps to avoid conflict. They were not expected to discuss the territorial disputes.

Southeast Asian ministers failed to reach a common position on the maritime dispute involving the South China Sea. The group concluded its meetings without a joint statement for the first time in its history. Senior officials emerged July 12, 2012 from a forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, unable to reach their goal of hammering out a joint statement representing the members’ views on the issue. ASEAN foreign ministers had been attempting all week to craft a statement summarizing its members' position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The Government of the Republic of the Philippines states that it ‘‘has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China’’ and in his statement of January 23, 2013, Republic of Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Del Rosario stated that therefore ‘‘the Philippines has taken the step of bringing China before the Arbitral Tribunal under Article 287 and Annex VII of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea in order to achieve a peaceful and durable solution to the dispute’’.

On 05 December 2013, one of the Chinese warships escorting the Liaoning narrowly avoided colliding with a U.S. naval vessel. China's first aircraft carrier wss deployed with escorts for a series of training exercises in the South China Sea. US officials say the USS Cowpens was forced to take evasive action to avoid hitting the Chinese vessel. Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel later said China acted in an "irresponsible" manner during the stand-off, which occurred as the U.S. ship monitored the Chinese carrier group in international waters. Beijing, however, said it acted "in accordance with strict protocol," and suggested the US ship had ignored warnings and come too close to the Chinese carrier.

According to the limited public information available, the Chinese captain of the ship involved and possibly the commander of the fleet accompanying the Liaoning had apparently violated the International Maritime Organisation's 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea - ratified by both China and the US. The Chinese commanders may also have tried to constrain the Cowpens' "freedom of navigation".