Editor’s note: The following paper is an abbreviated version of a presentation recently made in Hanoi, Vietnam. In this paper Dr. Valencia examines maritime conflicts and potential resolutions in the South China Sea. Dr. Valencia, has been a maritime policy analyst, specializing in Asian affairs for over three decades.

By Dr. Mark J. Valencia, Maritime Policy Analyst, Kaneohe, Hawaii

The political environment in the South China Sea seems to have improved from the 1980’s and 1990’s when it was a locus of confrontation and conflict. Indeed, the China-Vietnam clash of 1988 in which about 70 Vietnamese died, and China’s 1995 occupation and building of structures on the Philippines claimed Mischief Reef seem like relics of a previous era. Conflict has given way to co-operation in which China, Vietnam and the Philippines have undertaken co-operative seismic surveys in an agreed area. But are these advances fundamental and durable?

In 2002, ASEAN and China signed a Declaration on Conduct in which they promised “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means without resorting to the threat or use of force” and “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability”. China, Vietnam and the Philippines have agreed on a web of bilateral codes of conduct. All claimants have also agreed to move towards a more formal and legally-binding multilateral Code of Conduct - but the declaration has been violated numerous times.

The “soft” nature of the declaration which enabled its acceptance in the first place – it is not a legally binding document – makes it difficult even to raise the issue. Moreover China has now made a proposal which has deadlocked the process - that there be two prior meetings before an ASEAN –China meeting – one among the four ASEAN claimants (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam), and one between all of ASEAN.

China remains opposed to internationalization or regionalization of the dispute and would like to prevent or weaken ASEAN solidarity on these issues and continue to address them on a bilateral basis. ASEAN has opposed China’s proposal as it wishes to speak as one and all at once. During Thailand’s chairmanship of ASEAN, the issue was not a priority. But when Vietnam assumes the chair in January, the disputes and a multilateral approach could be raised. The issues will be on the agenda for the ASEAN summit meeting of April and October 2010 in Hanoi.

Despite this backsliding, the region– at least at sea – had moved to a lower level of securitization. The reasons included China’s ‘charm offensive’ toward ASEAN, the lack of discovery of significant petroleum deposits, and self-restraint of nationalist tendencies. Perhaps most important was the distraction of the United States with the Middle East and the “war on terror”, and thus a damping of China-US competition in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. One should add the expansion and strengthening of ASEAN and its growing unity in its approach to China.

Some analysts view the recent rash of China-US freedom of navigation incidents as reflecting a more assertive stance by Beijing in keeping with its naval modernization and drive for oil in the South China Sea. The web of electronic and physical infrastructure extending into the Spratlys and its acquisition of naval and air assets would enable its domination of the South China Sea. Others argue that China is simply trying to defend itself by protecting vital sealanes against a US-Japan-India encirclement and containment. The US response to these incidents has been relatively mild. This could embolden China. Rumors are that China intends to build an airport and seaport on Mischief Reef.

The fundamental conflicts over islands, maritime space and resources in the region have not been resolved. In 2007 several international incidents in quick succession re-energized the sovereignty disputes over the Spratly islets and reefs and recast a