Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - A code of conduct for the South China Sea will not resolve disputes over territorial boundaries that see Manila, Beijing and Hanoi pitted against one another. This is what experts and scholars contend, on the eve of the publication of the draft of a new "charter" called to determine the portions of the ocean pertaining to each country. Meanwhile, the level of tension increases between nations in the region, exacerbated by China's decision to hold a tender for oil exploration in a disputed area with Vietnam and the trespassing - according to a complaint by Manila - of vessels from Beijing in a stretch of sea claimed by the Philippines. Behind the scenes, the diplomatic work of the United States continues; the U.S. re-issues the invitation to an agreement to guarantee the free passage of merchant ships and boats in a strategic point, where nearly half of world trade circulates.
By July, the ASEAN nations - an association that brings together 10 countries of South-east Asia - and China should ratify a new "Code of Conduct" (COC), based on a prior agreement reached last year. It will provide guidelines for resolving disputes relating to the disputed portions of the ocean; starting next November, with its entry into force, it will be the point of reference for ensuring peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, replacing the old Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in 2002, which over time proved ineffective. However, experts warn that it will be largely useless, and the tensions will remain unresolved. Concerning the matter, one Vietnamese scholar suggests that ASEAN countries should first establish a common conduct among themselves, and then address - together - Beijing's claims.
Meanwhile, China continues to promote an "imperialist" policy in the area, heedless of protests from the other nations concerned and those calling for calm from Washington. The United States, in particular, is pushing for the signing of the COC, stressing that it continues to be of "national interest" to the U.S. that there be free access to the South China Sea, where almost 50% of water-borne trade travels. In recent days Hanoi denounced the move by China, which has invited foreign companies to do exploration in search of oil and gas in an area disputed with Vietnam and rich in 30 billion tons of crude oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of gas. For the Vietnamese government, the tender of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation is "illegal" and constitutes a "threat" to territorial sovereignty. The nine blocks at heart of the study, according to Hanoi, fall "in 200 nautical miles" of "exclusive" Vietnamese jurisdiction. China responds that it involves "normal" business matters and hopes that "Vietnam will comply with these agreements and will also performing acts that will complicate the issue."
A second front instead sees the opposition between Beijing and Manila. The Philippine Navy reports that some Chinese boats are back in the waters off the Scarborough Shoal, in the north-west region of the country, where in recent months tensions had already flared between the two governments. Triggering the crisis, on April 8, was the Philippine Navy's attempt to block some Chinese fishing boats, which had crossed the boundary that marks the portion of the sea at the center of contention. This brought about the intervention of Chinese warships, protecting the boats and national "interests". Since then, there has been a climate of tension in the area and diplomatic efforts by the international community have been to no avail.
Among the nations of the Asia-Pacific region, China is the one making the greatest claims concerning maritime borders in the South China Sea. Their hegemony in the area has a strategic importance for trade and the exploitation of oil and natural gas, which are abundant in the subsoil. Competing with the expansionist ambitions of Beijing are Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, the Sultanate of Brunei and Taiwan, which are joined by the defense of U.S. strategic interests in the area. In the area in recent months there have been several "incidents" between naval vessels or fishing boats - in an area characterized by an abundance of fish - flying the flags of Beijing, Hanoi and Manila.