Freedom of Navigation in South China Sea (SCS) is an Issue like citizens of Moscow interfering about how New Yorkers build their subway stations and how NY districts lobby for funds and investments to build new stations. It is none of Russia’s business; certainly no one will prevent any international travelers to ride a NY subway with proper conduct. SCS is a large area of ocean having numerous small uninhabited islands. Historically, these small islands were under China’s sovereignty when most parts of Indo-China were tributary states under China’s dominance. Many coastal countries respected China’s claim of sovereignty over the SCS islands until WW II when Japan’s invasion disrupted the peace in SCS. Post WW II, the SCS was supposed to be restored to pre-war condition according to Potsdam declaration and San Francisco Peace Treaty, but China was devastated by the war and was split into Mainland China and Taiwan resulting in each claiming Sovereignty over SCS islands. Then the SCS coastal countries began to encroach the nearby uninhabited islands, started to build structures on these islands.
China naturally was aware of these encroachments and tried to prevent them. In particular, Vietnam was the most aggressive country claiming territorial sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. During the 1950s, Paracel Islands were controlled by China and South Vietnam, but in 1958, North Vietnam accepted China's claim of the Paracels, relinquishing its own claim. In 1974, a clash between South Vietnam and China resulted in China taking complete control of the Paracels. When the North Vietnam absorbed the South Vietnam in 1975 (ending of US-Vietnam War), North Vietnam took over the South Vietnamese-controlled portions of the Spratly Islands. The united Vietnam then canceled its earlier renunciation of its claim to the Paracels and attempted to dominate the Spratly Islands, partially controlled by China. In 1978, China ceased financial aid to Vietnam as Vietnam signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union favoring commercial and military ties with the Soviet over China. In February, 1979, one month after the U.S. recognized China, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army launched a two week military campaign crushing into the northern Vietnam and threatened occupation of the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, as a punishment to Vietnam’s hostile attitude to China, discrimination to Chinese people living in Vietnam and hegemonic aggression into Cambodia.
China strategically stopped the 29 Day invasion on March 5th and engaged a peace talk with Vietnam after causing heavier casualties in Vietnam army than themselves. But the peace negotiation broke down in December, 1979, both sides began buildup of troops as many as 600,000 on Vietnam side and 400,000 on China’s side. Sporadic slirmishess occurred in the 1980’s. China threatened to launch another punitive attack to force Vietnam to move out of Cambodia. China succeeded somewhat in checking Vietnam’s ambition of encroaching into her neighbors, Laos and Cambodia, but the Vietnam-China border conflicts persisted to 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Spratly Islands in SCS became a dispute among China (Mainland and Taiwan), Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam following the following events: 1. China lost the Sino-France war ceding control of Indo-China and consequentially part of SCS to France. 2. Briefly, Japan invaded and occupied Indo-China during WW II. 3. Post WW II, the U.S. took over the French interest in Indo-China, engaged a twenty year war in Vietnam (1955-1975), 4. China won a war against the united Vietnam (1979). 5. Development of Asian countries from post Vietnam War to the collapse of the Soviet Union (1979-1990) and then rapid development from 1990 to 2000.
The importance of SCS islands especially the bigger ones like Spratly are threefold: 1. Large oil and gas reserve in the region; 2. Fishing rights; and 3. Strategic position to the commercial sea lane for vast amount of world trade. The dispute over Spratly would have been essentially over today if just dealing with the above issues, but the U.S. raised a new issue, “Freedom of Navigation” for her naval vessels in SCS. Ever since 1992, the ASEAN countries advocated peaceful resolution of any dispute in SCS. In 1995, the ten ASEAN countries signed an agreement with China (PRC) that any military action occurred in SCS would be informed to all other countries. In 2002, ASEAN reached another declaration on Conduct in SCS, “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, ..... (consultation, negotiation and not using force)" though it was short of a legal binding code of conduct. In 2002, China announced that she was launching a discussion of code of conduct in SCS, but in 2012, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution denouncing that China's actions amounted to unilaterally asserting control of disputed territories in the SCS.
Then the Philippines, under the Administration of President Benigno Aquino, III, initiated a protest against China to the International Tribunal for the Law of Sea for Chinese petroleum boat interfering Philippine’s oil exploration near disputed Spratly. Subsequently, Philippines instituted an arbitration proceedings in “the Permanent Court of Arbitration” (2013-2016) to which China refused to respond denying the court’s jurisdiction. Hence the ruling essentially was useless, nothing more than creating political debate among biased commentators. In 2016, when Rodrigo Duterte, a strong Administrator against crime and drugs, got elected as Philippines’ President, he chose to steer Philippine’s diplomacy away from being dominated by the U.S., pursuing a neutral position towards China as an ASEAN member. Duterte elected not to contest with China over disputes over SCS islands and welcomed China’s collaboration in resource exploration and investment for economic development.
In recent few years, the SCS Issue was not bothering the SCS regional countries as much as the U.S. Her naval forces demanded ‘Freedom of Navigation’ by sending battle ships (even organizing naval exercises in Pacific Ocean) into SCS sometimes into the 12 nautical miles territorial water of the claimed islands. China sensed the military threat from the U.S. and her allies’ naval forces; she accelerated her construction and fortification of her controlled SCS islands. China’s progress was amazingly rapid, now she has completed modern seaport and airport on several controlled and enlarged islands providing not only defense capability but also operational support for maritime rescue and sea-lane safety.
On June 7th, American TV network, CNN, broadcasted a video of a Russian warship almost colliding into an American warship, each side blaming the other. This incident occurred a few days after a similar brush between their planes in the Mediterranean. The above naval incidence happened during President Xi’s visit in Russia, thus some commentators speculated that it was a message sent by President Putin: Russia being on the China side. However, judging on the intricate development in the past decade in SCS, I would say that the Asian countries and China had taken a peaceful approach to deal with their problems. They all had focused on the possibilities of collaborative economic development. China had always taken a welcome posture to collaboration whereas the American corporations were more worried about the investment risks in SCS. Flexing muscle by the U.S. Navy in SCS does not really reduce the security risk (hence investment risk) in SCS for American corporations. Therefore, it is easy to conclude that China and ASEAN should continue to develop an agreement on the code of conduct in SCS. The outside forces, whether, the U.S., Australia, India, Japan or Russia, should restrain from interfering with their peaceful discussion.