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2011 South China Sea Developments

On June 27, 2011 the U.S. Senate unanimously approved resolution S.Res.217, deploring the use of force by China in the South China Sea and calling for a peaceful, multilateral resolution to maritime territorial disputes in Southeast Asia. The resolution passed by the Senate reaffirms the strong support of the United States for the peaceful resolution of maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, pledges continued efforts to facilitate a multilateral, peaceful process to resolve these disputes, and supports the continuation of operations by the United States Armed Forces in support of freedom of navigation rights in international waters and air space in the South China Sea.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai warned the United States on June 23, 2011 to stay out of the disputes in the South China Sea. "Regarding the role of the United States in this, the United States is not a claimant state to the dispute... So it is better for the United States to leave the dispute to be sorted out between the claimant states. ... I believe the individual countries are actually playing with fire, and I hope the fire will not be drawn to the United States.... Some American friends may want the United States to help matters. We appreciate that gesture, but more often than not, such gestures will only make things more complicated.... if the United States does want to play a role, it may counsel restraint to those countries whove been frequently taking provocative action, and to ask them to be more responsible in their behavior.... To be honest with you, the Chinese public is following very closely whether the United States will adopt a just and objective position on matters like these."

Officials in the Philippines said 23 June 2011 that the United States was obligated by a 1951 treaty to help defend Philippine interests if ships came under attack in the South China Sea. The United States is neutral on the validity of the competing islands claims, and the United States never claimed the Spratlys were part of the Philippines while it was the colonial power. But the US is adamant on freedom of navigation, including through EEZs. The main shipping lanes between the East Asia and the Middle East and Europe lies in this area. Hence, the United States would always line up against Chinas claims to the entire South China Sea and also to Chinas creatively restrictive interpretations of freedom of navigation what it effectively regards as internal territorial waters.

By mid-June 2011 tensions between China and Vietnam were rising over their disputed claims in the South China Sea. On 26 May 2011, a Chinese patrol boat cut the cable of a Vietnamese surveying vessel that was conducting seismic research within Vietnam's waters. Chinese ships cut the cables of a Vietnamese sonar exploration vessel operating 120 nautical miles off the Vietnam coast approximately due east of Nha Trang. No claim to the area where the Vietnamese ship was drilling could be made on the basis of sovereignty of all or any of the scattered groups of islets, rocks and reefs known as the Spratlys. Vietnam announced that its navy would hold live-fire exercises in the South China Sea on Monday for six hours on 13 June 2011. The Vietnamese military exercises were held around Hon Ong island about 40 kilometers off Quang Nam province in central Vietnam, far away from the disputed waters.

China demanded that Vietnam stop all business activities on the contested Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea and allow Chinese fishermen to work there. "Vietnam is unlawfully exploring oil and gas in the Wan'an Bank ... of the Spratly archipelago and harassed a Chinese fishing boat," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. Hong said a Chinese boat, involved "in doing normal business," was harassed by a Vietnamese boat and the Chinese fishing boat's net got mixed up with the Vietnamese boat's cable.

An editorial in the Global Times, a newspaper published by China's ruling Communist Party, accused Hanoi of using the "lowest form of nationalism to create new enmity between the people of the two countries.... Hanoi seems to be looking to dissipate domestic pressure and buck up morale at home, while at the same time further drawing in the concern of international society over the South China Sea dispute... If Vietnam insists on making trouble, thinking that the more trouble it makes, the more benefits it gains, then we truly wish to remind those in Vietnam who determine policy to please read your history... "

In September 2011 a two-day meeting of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) legal experts in Manila concluded that there was a legal basis for a proposal by the Philippines for joint economic development in disputed parts of the South China Sea. The Philippine delegation at the ASEAN meeting submitted a plan that proposes creating what it calls a zone of peace, freedom, friendship and cooperation in the South China Sea. Philippines Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos led the delegation that presented the plan.

The idea is to isolate the islands that multiple countries are claiming, and jointly turn them into economically viable sites that all claimant nations can benefit from. Under the Philippine proposal, the claimant countries would delineate which areas are in dispute and which are not. Exploration could then go ahead in the undisputed areas, while the disputed areas would be turned into an area for joint cooperation.

Chinese officials were reportedly unhappy about the legal experts meeting in Manila. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing that the country is committed to solving the disputes through bilateral talks. China says history entitles it to claim the entire South China Sea.

In July 2011, Southeast Asian and Chinese officials agreed on a set of non-binding guidelines for implementing the non-binding Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that China and the 10 ASEAN countries signed in 2002. It emphasizes peaceful and diplomatic means to resolve issues.

In September 2011 Indias state-owned oil company was in talks with Vietnam over oil and gas exploration rights in the South China Sea. Chinas Foreign Ministry issued a pointed warning. Spokesman Hong Lei said any country engaged in oil and gas exploration activities in this jurisdiction without the approval of the Chinese government is infringing upon China's sovereignty and national interest, and its actions are therefore illegal and invalid. Indian officials say they plan to increase the scope of energy cooperation with Vietnam. Senior Indian Defense Ministry Official M. Pallam Raju said India's resolve to back its diplomacy is firm. "We will protect our interests very strongly, so there's no backing away from that. There's no reticence," said Raju.

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