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Clear signals please, and quicker

Publication Date : 15-01-2013


One month - that was how long it took for China to clear the air over a controversial law that empowers its border police to intercept foreign ships in the contentious South China Sea.

News on November 29 of the proposed law sparked concerns from the international community, in particular Asean claimant-states locked in territorial disputes with China in the South-east Asian maritime hub.

This, despite uncertainty over whether the law, effective from Jan1, would cover only Hainan's 22km territorial waters or the entire South China Sea.

For a month, tensions rose and suspicions grew among the claimants, which include four Asean nations - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - as well as Taiwan.

Not much was made known publicly about the proposed law, except that it would empower the police "to board, seize and expel foreign ships illegally entering the province's sea areas".

Illegal activities reportedly would include "entering Hainan's waters without permission, damaging coastal defence facilities and engaging in publicity that threatens national security".

It did not help that the Chinese Foreign Ministry declined to give more details on Hainan's move, merely defending it as "the legitimate right of the sovereign state to carry out maritime management".

Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman Raul Hernandez, responding to Hainan's plans, said China's move could "pose a concern to the Philippines and the international community".

Some also feared an adverse impact on freedom of navigation, as the South China Sea is vital to international shipping lanes. It also sustains the fishing industries of claimant states, and is believed to be rich in oil and gas.

Then Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan warned of naval clashes, while the US government said it was seeking clarification.

Singapore also expressed concern and urged all parties with claims in the disputed sea to refrain from provocative behaviour and to respect the principles of international law.

Amid the outcry, China stayed mum and remained so for weeks.

It was only on December 31 - a day before the law kicked in - that Beijing clarified for the first time that the law would apply only within a narrow coastal zone off Hainan, and not the entire sea.

The belated clarification certainly helped to calm nerves.

However, confusion remains and China has reportedly reverted to silent mode.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on January 9 said it had asked Beijing to explain the deployment of a Chinese patrol ship to guard disputed territory that it claims as its own in the South China Sea. He noted that the move did not gel with Beijing's clarification that Hainan's law applies only in its territorial waters.

"Everybody's hot and bothered," del Rosario said. "That's why we're saying, define, please define for us, but they're not answering."

One cannot help but wonder why China twice chose to drag its feet in clarifying Hainan's move.

Delay in correcting misperception would only cement, in the minds of others, an image of China as an increasingly aggressive giant not averse to taking tougher action regarding the South China Sea. It could also lead others to take action based on an inaccurate or unclear understanding of Beijing's plans, thus possibly exacerbating unnecessary strife in a region that could do with some stability and peace.

Also, one month is too long a time for a country to dispel misunderstandings in this information age, particularly one aspiring to be a superpower.

After all, China has no lack of avenues to put out the correct information. Its foreign ministry is among the most active in the world in answering media queries. It holds daily briefings with foreign and local journalists who can ask questions on almost all domestic and international issues.

University of Denver analyst Zhao Suisheng believes China's tardiness may have been due to the government's uncertainty about its maritime jurisdiction.

"This confusion is not surprising, as China has never made legally clear claims about its maritime territory in the South China Sea."

Another reason for the protracted delay could have stemmed from the central government's difficulties in dealing with local or government agencies, which seek to increase their power and budget through their actions.

According to a paper last year by the International Crisis Group (ICG), "repeated proposals to establish a more centralised mechanism have floundered, while the only agency with a coordinating mandate, the foreign ministry, does not have the authority or resources to manage other actors".

Peking University analyst Wang Dong, who agrees that China needs to clarify matters faster to prevent misunderstandings, said a more coordinated policy in dealing with issues is required.

"More policy coordination and oversight between the centre and the local authorities over issues with important foreign policy implications will be needed," said Professor Wang.

One hopes that Beijing would be able to get this right - sooner rather than later.


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