MANILA - China and its Southeast Asian neighbours must adopt a more binding legal agreement on how to conduct their actions in the disputed South China Sea to prevent conflict, security and diplomatic analysts said on Tuesday (July 5).
While the experts speaking at an international conference in Manila did not expect current tension to lead to conflict, they said there could be skirmishes because of increased activity by claimants to assert jurisdiction over the Spratly Islands.
"The tension is up and down, up and down several times, and we need a more binding code of conduct to regulate the activity of countries in the South China Sea. And the code of conduct have to be, cover every activity of every user in the South China Sea, not only claimant state, but also of other users in the South China Sea," said Dr. Tran Truong Thuy, director for South China Sea studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.
He said that the recent escalation of tensions exposed the limitations of the current non-legally binding code of conduct. He added that a stronger agreement was also in the interest of countries like Japan, U.S., Australia and India, to protect freedom of navigation and lawful economic activity in the strategic maritime area.
The Spratlys, which cover a major shipping lane, rich fishing grounds and sit on oil and gas deposits, are claimed entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Last week an Australian think tank warned that incidents in the sea could lead to war in Asia.
The Philippines and Vietnam have protested against aggressive action by China in the South China Sea in recent months, including accusations of cutting seismic cables on oil and gas exploration ships, threats to ram vessels, and firing shots at fishermen.
Last month the Philippine military reported an unidentified fighter jet harassed Filipino fishermen in the Spratlys, the second incident involving unidentified fighters since May.
"I'm saying that the situation is urgent now because if it's left unaddressed, we're likely to see skirmishes at sea," Professor Carlyle Thayer of Australia's University of New South Wales told Reuters.
China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) must agree on a rules-based regime with obligation and enforcement mechanisms, and include non-claimant states in the treaty, he said.
"China then has to decide. Does it really want a rules-based system, or does it want its own rules? And now all of a sudden, its political influence in Southeast Asia is being forced. Do you want to co-operate with ASEAN or do you want to mess them around?" Carlyle added.
China has called on non-claimants to stay out of the dispute and has said it preferred to deal with the disputes through bilateral talks.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said that while the Philippines was committed to resolving the territorial dispute peacefully, he would not allow his country to be bullied by more powerful neighbours.
"No one wants conflict but it also doesn't mean that we will just let ourselves be cowed by bigger countries," he told the diplomatic community during the foreign affairs department's 113th anniversary.
"If we let ourselves be pushed around, perhaps tomorrow or the next day, our 7,100 islands will be down to two digits. It is not fair for others to claim what is clearly ours," he added.
He said the Philippines is pushing for a rules-based international system to find a peaceful, fair and effective dialogue to resolve the conflict. The Philippine foreign minister is expected to raise the issue with Beijing as he visits China this week.