Thursday, July 20, 2017

Conference on the South China Sea: Twenty Questions

Background Briefing:
CSIS 7th International
Conference on the South China
Sea: Twenty Questions
Carlyle A. Thayer
July 18, 2017
[client name deleted]
We know you were not invited to the 7th international conference on the South China
Sea hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and sponsored by the
Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and the Foundation for East Sea Studies. What
questions do you think the speakers should address?
QUESTION 1: To what extent is Philippines economic development dependent on
securing hydrocarbon energy resources from Recto Bank? Is Philippine economic
development being held hostage by Chinese blandishments not to drill and exploit oil
and gas within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone?
QUESTION 2: What is the legal basis for Chinese warnings to foreign military aircraft
and ships as they transit the Spratly islands in South China Sea? China has not
promulgated any baselines that are required for a territorial sea. What is the basis in
international law for Chinese alerts that foreign aircraft are entering a “military alert
QUESTION 3: In May this year it was reported, “Norinco CS/AR-1 55mm anti-frogman
rocket launcher defense systems with the capability to discover, identify and attack
enemy combat divers had been installed on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.”
What activities by “enemy combat divers” provoked this response? Is the
emplacement of rockets on Fiery Cross a violation of the self-restraint clause in the
2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea?
QUESTION 4: When the Arbitral Tribunal issued its Award on July 12, 2016 Vietnam’s
Foreign Ministry said it would issue a statement on the Award. Has any such statement
been issued? If not, why not?
QUESTION 5: What precisely are Vietnam’s claims to the Spratly Islands? In particular
does Vietnam claim all of the land features (artificial islands) occupied by China? If not,
which ones does Vietnam claim? Does Vietnam claim any land features also claimed
by the Philippines? If so, which ones?
QUESTION 6: Last year it was reported that Vietnam deployed launchers for the Israelimanufactured
Extended Range Artillery rockets (EXTRA), on several land features in
the Spratlys. Are these reports accurate and do you consider this a violation of the
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self-restraint clause in the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China
QUESTION 7: What were the activities of Vietnamese special forces (so-called enemy
combat divers by China) that led China to emplace a defensive rocket system on Fiery
Cross Reef?
QUESTION 8: What has prompted Chinese assertiveness in opposing oil exploration by
the Philippines in Recto Bank and Vietnamese oil and gas activities in Block 118 and
Block 136-03 off its coast?
QUESTION 9: Is the Arbitral Tribunal Award “dead in the water” as a result China’s
refusal to comply and the decision by President Duterte to set it aside? Doesn’t this
undermine a rules-based regional order?
QUESTION 10: Chinese legal specialists and academics must have been taken aback by
the unanimous decision of the Arbitral Tribunal. What re-evaluation if any has taken
place in China? Is China gradually advancing a new legal basis for its claims in the South
China Sea?
QUESTION 11: China was roundly condemned by the Arbitral Tribunal for massive
damage to the coral reef system and for failure to protect the marine environment.
What are the consequences of continued neglect and inaction on this issue?
QUESTION 12: Why haven’t China and ASEAN member states commenced
cooperation in the five areas mentioned in the 2002 DOC? Does China still insist that
the effective implementation of the DOC is a prerequisite for a Code of Conduct?
QUESTION 13: It appears that there are at least two major impediments to an ASEANChina
Code of Conduct in the South China Sea – geographic scope and legally binding
nature. What geographic area should the COC cover? And should national legislatures
ratify the COC and deposit copies with the United Nations?
QUESTION 14: Is the naval balance of power in the South China Sea shifting in China’s
favor? If so, aren’t China’s seven artificial island bases a fait accompli?
QUESTION 15: In order for the United States to exert the effective influence of sea
power on developments in the South China Sea, how important is access – rotational
or otherwise – to bases and facilities in the Philippines?
QUESTION 16: When President Barack Obama lifted the International Trafficking in
Arms Regulations (ITAR or arms embargo) against Vietnam he said, “As will all our
defense partners, sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those
related to human rights.” Does this policy still apply under President Donald Trump?
QUESTION 17: Are the actions by the Trump Administration in the South China Sea
such as conducting freedom of navigation patrols, overflights by bombers and
maritime patrol aircraft, and joint exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense
Force a lot of “sound and fury signifying nothing”?
QUESTION 18: Can the Trump Administration assemble a coalition of the willing or
likeminded states to push back against China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
If so, who would be part of this coalition and how specifically should they push back?
QUESTION 19: China argues that as the United States has not ratified UNCLOS it really
has no standing in South China Sea maritime disputes. For example, if China interfered
with U.S. freedom of navigation patrols the Spratly islands, the U.S. would not be able
to avail itself of dispute settlement mechanisms in UNCLOS. Shouldn’t the U.S.
conduct freedom of navigation patrols with states like Australia and Japan who have
ratified UNCLOS. Would the threat of legal action deter Chinese assertiveness?
QUESTION 20: What is the status of the U.S. National Security Strategy mandated by
the U.S. Congress? What should this strategy include? As a follow on, what should be
the essential components of the new U.S. Maritime Strategy?
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “CSIS 7th International Conference on the South
China Sea: Twenty Questions,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 18, 2017. All
background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself
from the mailing list type, UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key.
Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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