Professor Carlyle A. Thayer, Professor Emeritus of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, spoke during the Foreign Service Institute’s Mabini Dialogue Series held at the Carlos P. Romulo Library on 15 May 2015.
His presentation, “China’s Land Reclamation and Lack of Self-Restraint: Implications for the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties and the Proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” critically examined the extent as well as the intentions of China in its reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea (SCS).
According to Prof. Thayer, China has so far created about 2,000 acres of reclaimed land on seven features in the SCS—Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, Mischief Reef, Johnson Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Chigua Reef, and Calderon Reef. He pointed out that China is already transitioning from the reclamation phase to infrastructure development as it builds harbors, communication and surveillance systems, and airfields in these artificial islands. China maintains that it is has indisputable sovereignty over these features and that it is merely playing “catch up” to other parties that have “illegally” reclaimed land and built defensive facilities in the area.
He also refuted China’s assertions of using the facilities for civilian purposes such as navigational aid, search and rescue, fishery services and marine meteorological observation. If that was the case, China need not be unilateral and non-transparent in its actions. China, as a show of good faith, could have cooperated with other claimant parties with existing facilities in the SCS rather than create its own.
China’s reclamation activities also have an impact on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), especially on paragraphs 4 and 5 on the “threat or use of force” and “exercise of self-restraint,” respectively. He explained that given the nature of incidents in the SCS (i.e., use of water hose by Coast Guard ships and ramming of fishing vessels), there is a need to better define the meaning of “non-use of force.” He also noted that the construction of artificial islands may also be fait accompli before the Arbitral Tribunal awards its decision regarding the case filed by the Philippines.
According to Prof. Thayer, transparency, cooperation, and openness are the keys to managing the disputes in the SCS. All claimant states should voluntary exchange relevant information, while every construction and maintenance activity by states should be publicized, including satellite photos and imagery. He also proposed establishing working groups to investigate marine environmental damage, and ensuring safety of navigation and communication at the sea.
Finally, Prof. Thayer described China’s actions in the SCS as “excising the maritime heart out of Southeast Asia.” He challenged ASEAN countries to “get the house in order” and set an example by resolving their maritime and territorial disputes among themselves. In addition to the proposed Code of Conduct with China, Prof. Thayer proposed that ASEAN also come up with an agreement similar to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to cover the maritime domain. This agreement can be opened to other regional stakeholders in the SCS.
The Mabini Dialogue was attended by representatives from the government, diplomatic corps, armed forces, and academe, as well as Philippine foreign service posts in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Phnom Penh via live webcast.