Hi-tech militarization of South China Sea alarming, experts say

By Nguyen Dong, Nga Vu   November 10, 2018 | 09:40 pm PT
Hi-tech militarization of South China Sea alarming, experts say
An F18 fighter takes off from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt while transiting the South China Sea April 10, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Karen Lema
Uncontrolled deployment of advanced military technologies in the disputed South China Sea will exacerbate tensions, warn experts.

They said the fact that some parties to the South China Sea dispute are increasingly militarizing the area is the biggest threat to regional stability.

This process is not only taking place on the sea, but under it and in the air, said experts attending a conference held in Vietnam’s central city of Da Nang late last week.

Vietnam calls the South China Sea the East Sea.

The conference aimed to discuss potential solutions for settling the East Sea disputes.

Delegates noted that in addition to competing for marine resources like fisheries, and oil and gas, the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles is creating new legal arguments.

Dr. Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the gathering of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance has so far received little interest in comparison to other superficial activities in the process of building forces in the South China Sea.

The importance of those activities cannot be denied, he stressed.

The cost for unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, is quite high but several countries have begun to use them, and China has taken the lead in deploying them in the East Sea area, he said.

Other experts worried that a lack of international regulations on the deployment of advanced technologies in the East Sea will increase the risk of conflict in the region.

For example, in December, 2016, the Chinese navy seized an underwater drone placed in the water off the Philippines coast and did not return it for more than four days. The U.S. had called the seizure "unlawful."

The East Sea disputes have lasted for many years.

China claims almost the entire sea area, including waters close to Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. It has also put up artificial islands turning them into garrisons.

Australia, Japan and the U.S. have urged ASEAN and China to ensure that a code of conduct for the area is "legally binding." Failure to make the code enforceable could render it ineffective, experts have said.

At the two-day event in Da Nang, some Chinese scholars said the intensification of East Sea patrols by the U.S. is creating more tension in the region, so China had to respond by expanding its artificial islands to strengthen its military base.

But most scholars, including foreigners and Vietnamese, rejected that argument saying building and expanding such islands is a violation of international law.

Now in its 10th year, the South China Sea International Conference attracted 220 participants, including 120 international scholars.

It aims to strengthen cooperation for regional security and development and contribute to raising awareness of issues and their implications among policymakers and the general public.

"The East Sea has become one of the major areas of multinational policymaking. And more and more people are interested in East Sea issues," Nguyen Vu Tung, director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at the opening ceremony.

He said disputes in the East Sea are still complicated and efforts of countries inside and outside the region have not been enough to ease tensions and ensure security.

"The root of the problem is still left unsolved," he said, calling on experts and scholars to keep up their "frank, objective, scientific and truthful attitude to put forward unprejudiced solutions "for a peaceful, stable and developed environment in the region."

Judge Kriangsak Kittichairasee from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea said that the basic principles to settling disputes is that related parties seek concrete and rational initiatives for cooperation; and at the same time, refrain from actions that complicate the situation.

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