Date: 08-16-2002

HONOLULU -- As long as Southeast Asian nations fail to agree among themselves on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, China will feel no pressure to agree to one, and the volatile conflict over claims in the Spratly Islands will continue, says an East-West Center specialist on maritime policy in Asia.

Six governments -- China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam --claim some or all of the Spratly Islands and the surrounding waters. Incidents between rival claimants are common.

"China's strategy in the South China Sea is to play for time while slowly asserting itself militarily, hoping that eventually the lion's share of the Spratly Islands will fall into its hands," said Mark J. Valencia. "It will continue to rely on ambiguity, selective use of force, 'divide and dominate' and other tactics until it reaches its goal."

China has again used the differences among key Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) claimants to avoid agreeing on a code of behavior.

At the July ASEAN Regional Forum, the Philippines, which has been bearing the brunt of China's assertiveness, proposed a specific code of conduct including no further occupations of the islets. But ASEAN claimants could not agree among themselves regarding the geographic coverage of the code.

Vietnam wanted it to include the Paracels, but this definition was unacceptable to China, which has occupied the islands since it took them by force in 1974. China also wanted a general declaration of principles rather than specific prohibitions such as "no further occupations."

Malaysia, in a bid to break the impasse, suggested that the "code" be replaced by a political "declaration" and that the geographic coverage be non-specific as well. But China didn't bite.

Valencia said any successful code or declaration may need to contain language clarifying that it is "without prejudice to territorial and maritime jurisdictional claims in the area."

"As long as Malaysia will not back its fellow ASEAN members and claimants -- Vietnam and the Philippines -- in their bid to entangle China in a code of conduct, China will have no pressure to agree," Valencia said. "Thus this saga is likely to continue."

Mark J. Valencia can be reached at 808-944-7247 or
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