In 2002 China and the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations agreed to a “declaration” on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. This is a promise to formalise a code minimising the risk that disputes between fishermen or other users of the sea might escalate into conflict. The code has not emerged. But optimists point to the restraint parties have shown since 2002 in not occupying uninhabited islands or specks of rock (though they have been energetically fortifying the places where they already had a presence). Similarly, some were cheered when China’s most recent statement of its claim did not include the contentious map, and could even be construed as accepting (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) UNCLOS principles.
..But in late May 2011 a Vietnamese ship exploring for oil and gas in the Sea had its surveying cables cut by Chinese patrol boats..Around the time when the Vietnamese survey ship had its lines cut, the Philippines reported that Chinese vessels had been spotted unloading building material on an uninhabited reef, known as the Amy Douglas Bank, in waters it claims, apparently to build an oil rig. If so, this would undermine the declaration’s one big achievement. “It could be the final nail in its coffin,” says Ian Storey of the Institute for South-East Asian Studies in Singapore, author of a new book on China’s rise and South-East Asian security.
Even if China does not build on the reef, the perception has taken hold that it is intent on picking off the South-East Asian claimants one by one, starting with the Philippines, one of the weakest.
Excerpts, Banyan: Not littorally Shangri-La, Economist, June 11, 2011, at 50