Motion to Urge the Government to Take the Steps Necessary to De-escalate Tensions and Restore Peace and Stability in the South China Sea

Thank you, honourable senators.

This is a motion that urges the government to take steps necessary to deescalate tensions and restore peace and stability in the South China Sea, and, honourable senators, I’m grateful to our colleague Senator Ngo for his motion to launch an inquiry on the worrisome events taking place right now in the South China Sea. I was prepared to speak to this in June, but, because of scheduling, my speech was delayed until today.

There have been changes since then, and I’d like to talk about that and a wee bit more. I have made some updates on the tensions that are there and that have continued to mount throughout the summer.

Part of the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea encompasses close to 3.5 million square kilometres. It is made up of hundreds of small, mostly uninhabited islands, including the Paracel and Spratly Islands. One third of all maritime traffic in the world, carrying an estimated $5 trillion worth of oil and goods, is transported through this corridor every year.

The area has significant oil and natural gas reserves. A 2013 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that there were 11 billion barrels of oil in those reserves. Estimates for natural gas are in the range of 190 trillion cubic feet. There is a lot at stake.

The South China Sea holds one third of the world’s marine biodiversity. It is also a major fishing ground, yielding 10 per cent of the world’s total catch. States and territories bordering this body of water include the People’s Republic of China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan. For hundreds of years and for obvious reasons, they have been engaged in a series of overlapping claims of islands and portions of the South China Sea. Twenty-five years ago, while I was reporting for CTV News and living in China, I covered events arising from competing interests among the countries bordering the South China Sea. China was aggressive then. It used its economic power and its bully pulpit to intimidate smaller countries in the region. China is more aggressive today.

One of Senator Ngo’s goals in launching this inquiry is to open our eyes to the fact that what seems like a distant, ongoing problem is very much in our interest and is becoming a crisis. For more than 30 years, China’s actions to establish its sovereignty have become increasingly ambitious and aggressive. By way of what is widely known as “the nine-dash line,” the country has drawn out the parameters of a zone over which it claims to have historical rights. This line covers almost 90 per cent of the South China Sea and its islands. It stretches, tauntingly, to within 50 nautical miles of the Philippines exclusive economic zone, a zone defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and it also cuts into the EEZs of Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, violating their rights to develop maritime resources.

China, like the Philippines and other countries bordering the South China Sea, is a signatory to the UN convention. In ratifying the convention, China has agreed to resolve all maritime disputes in a peaceful manner. China certainly isn’t acting that way. The Philippines formally challenged China’s claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. China, however, refused to participate and insisted it would defy the ruling. This summer, as things changed and evolved, The Hague issued that ruling. The court rejected China’s claims that it had historic rights to control most of the region. The court also harshly rebuked China for its antagonistic conduct, including the construction of military facilities on the Spratly Islands.

China’s actions demonstrate a drive for power above all else, including international law. Over the past few years, China has been constructing — you may have seen it on various newscasts — artificial islands, equipping them with infrastructure such as runways, warplane hangars, buildings, loading piers, and possibly radar and surveillance structures. According to coverage published in the New York Times, throughout August and September, satellite images and other surveillance technology have been gathering evidence that China is continuing construction of a vast military base.

The words of the President of China, Xi Jinping, leave no room for peaceful resolution: “We are strongly committed to safeguarding the country’s sovereignty and security, and defending our territorial integrity.”

Those are menacing words.

The Council on Foreign Relations has said:

China’s land development has profound security implications. Beijing has reclaimed more than 2,900 acres, since December 2013, more land than all other claimants combined in the past forty years. The potential to deploy aircraft, missiles, and missile defense systems to any of its constructed islands vastly boosts China’s power projection, extending its operational range south and east by as much as 1,000 kilometers.

Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have claims on the Spratly Islands, where a considerable amount of this construction is going on. In the face of China’s aggression and disregard for legal and other established methods of dispute resolution, they are at a loss as to how to respond effectively. The words of former Philippines President Aquino, expressing the futility of dealing with China on his own, posed this rhetorical question: “To be realistic about it, how does one push around a superpower?”

The Philippines has been working in partnership with Japan to upgrade its defence and surveillance capacities. In accordance with the UN convention, Vietnam is emphasizing the importance of building trust, encouraging productive discussion and cooperation, and respecting compliance with international law. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has said: “Vietnam will do what it can to join other regional countries in consolidated peace and stability in the region.”

The United States and other ally countries are watching events in the South China Sea closely. Although unwilling to get involved in territorial disputes, President Obama has made it clear that his country has an interest in security, prosperity and dignity in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. has sent warships to defend the freedom of the area’s strategic waterways and has urged China, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries to work out a peaceful solution to the conflicting claims.

In the spring, iPolitics reported that “. . . the time when China would shrink and retreat at the first sight of a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group looming on the horizon is long gone.” Chances are, pushback from the U.S. could cause China to retaliate, which in turn could lead to a clash of violence.

The tensions in the South China Sea matter to this country — to all of us. We all have a stake in the goods and oil being carried through the passage, as well as the reserves of oil and gas, particularly as they impact the global economy. Also at risk are the fish supply and the quality of land and sea in this area. If the territories and states bordering the South China Sea could work together, they would be better positioned to collaborate on efforts to improve and prevent the destruction of the natural environment.

As it stands, there is widespread overfishing and little attention paid to laws and established practices to stop pollution and other damage. China is so aggressively bent on its land grab and building its powers that it is prompting counterproductive responses throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Tension is so tight at this point that a conflict could quite easily erupt as a result of any action that seems retaliatory.

The risk of conflict is yet another reason we should care about what is taking place in the South China Sea. Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Stéphane Dion, issued a statement in July emphasizing the need for compliance with international law. These are the closing words of that statement: “Canada therefore stands ready to contribute to initiatives that build confidence and help restore trust in the region.”

During his visit to China last month, Prime Minister Trudeau said nothing about any such initiatives, focusing instead on Canada’s openness to Chinese business. That has to change.

What is happening in the South China Sea is clearly a situation of bullying — an unfair, destructive and illegal pursuit of power. The danger is escalating, and the time has come for Canada to take a stand and collaborate with allies on resolving issues at the centre of this rising storm to diffuse the tension.

In her contribution to the inquiry, Senator Martin provided an outline not only of the variables and risks to be considered but also of what Canada’s role should be, beginning with our country’s proud history of being a fair and non-colonial diplomatic broker. Canada must use diplomatic and other non- military means to persuade those states and territories involved in the situation to accept and abide by the ruling from the International Court in the Hague.

In the event that China or other parties refuse to respect the decision rendered through this official, most reliable source, Canada should collaborate with allies in efforts to negotiate a peaceful and workable outcome. To repeat the word of Senator Martin, “Honourable senators, stakes are too high and the potential consequence is too great for the world to leave the South China Sea dispute unchecked.”

Again, I would like to thank Senator Ngo for launching this inquiry. I have a personal interest in this; I worked in that part of the world. The only distance between us and that part of the world is a body of water. We are all neighbours. We have so many people from that part of the world who live in this country, and it makes this country a great one.

But I would like to thank Senator Ngo for launching this inquiry to raise awareness of China’s conduct in the South China Sea and Canada’s responsibility to address it. I fully agree with his goals, and I’m grateful to have had this opportunity to support them.

I will let you know that this motion has been adjourned in the name of Senator Cools.

Thank you, honourable senators.