Abdur Rahman Khan
The South China Sea has turned into a hotbed as the super power United States of America has intensified its military presence to contain its emerging rival economic power, Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).
Last week, two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups entered the South China Sea for the second time this month. The USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz held massive drills on July 4th in a show of force aimed at Beijing, exercises that coincided with Chinese Navy drills near the Paracel Islands.
Also last week, a U.S. warship sailed near the Spratly Islands in what Washington calls a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP). Before Pompeo’s announcement, the official U.S. position was to push for China and its neighbors to settle territorial disputes in arbitration.
But sending warships within miles of Chinese territory sent a different message to Beijing, and likely played a role in China’s rapid militarization of its claimed islands.
With tensions between the US and PRC rapidly increasing by the day, China asked Washington to make a “fundamental choice” over its relationship with Beijing.
In an interview with CNN on Saturday, Chinese Ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai asked ed that “Is the United States ready or willing to live with another country with a very different culture, a very different political and economic system … in peace and cooperate on so many and still growing global challenges?”
Cui’s comments come as the Trump administration has taken actions over multiple flashpoints between the two powers, like Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and trade.
The Trump administration is also considering a sweeping travel ban that would target members of the Chinese Communist Party and their families.
On Sunday, China’s embassy in Myanmar responded to allegations against Beijing over the South China Sea. The Chinese embassy said the US is “outrageously smearing” the country and driving a wedge between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Chinese embassy said the US was doing “disgusting things” to contain China and has shown a “selfish, hypocritical, contemptible, and ugly face.”
The Chinese embassy was responding to a statement released by the US embassy in Myanmar on Saturday.
The US embassy said China’s recent actions in the South China Sea and Hong Kong were part of a “larger pattern to undermine the sovereignty of its neighbors.”
Importance of the South China Sea
The South China Sea is bordered by Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Their recent economic growth has contributed to a large portion of the world’s commercial merchant shipping passing through these waters. Japan and South Korea rely heavily on the South China Sea for their supply of fuels and raw materials and as an export route.
The South China Sea also contains rich, though unregulated and over-exploited fishing grounds and is reported to hold significant reserves of undiscovered oil and gas, which is an aggravating factor in maritime and territorial disputes. The major island and reef formations in the South China Sea are the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas, the Natuna Islands and Scarborough Shoal.
Competing claims of territorial sovereignty over islands and smaller features in the South China Sea have been a longstanding source of tension and distrust in the region. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was concluded in 1982 and came into force in 1994, established a legal framework intended to balance the economic and security interests of coastal states with those of seafaring nations. UNCLOS enshrines the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a 200 nautical mile area that extends sole exploitation rights to coastal nations over marine resources. However, the EEZ was never intended to serve as a security zone, and UNCLOS also guarantees wide-ranging passage rights for naval vessels and military aircraft.
The legal and territorial disputes persist, primarily over the Spratly and Paracel Islands as well as Scarborough Shoal, the scene of ongoing tensions between China and the Philippines. In terms of the Spratlys, more than 60 geographic features are reportedly occupied by claimants, which consist of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Malaysia. The Paracel Islands are the subject of overlapping claims by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. China makes the largest claim in the South China Sea, within a ‘dash-line’ map published by the Kuomintang Government in 1947. The ambiguous nine or ten ‘dash line’, which China asserts is based on evidence of historical usage, is disputed by other South China Sea territorial claimants and lacks a legal foundation under UNCLOS.
Australia has significant interests
Australia has significant interests in the South China Sea, both economically, in terms of freedom of trade and navigation, and geopolitically, as the United States is invested in upholding the rules-based order in the region. Australia has been conducting its own airborne surveillance operations in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, called Operation Gateway, since 1980. These patrols are conducted by P-3 Orion maritime aircraft and some of them have been verbally challenged by China. While Australia has not conducted a surface FONOP operation similar to those of the US Navy, it regularly conducts naval presence patrols, exercises and port calls throughout the region. As Washington’s closest ally in the region, Australia may come under growing pressure from the United States to make its presence felt in the South China Sea beyond statements of diplomatic support for freedom of navigation.
The Chinese claim
China says it has “historic rights” to the South China Sea and outlines its claims with the nine-dash line boundary that includes about 80 percent of the waters. The nine-dash line was originally an eleven-dash line, which included the Gulf of Tonkin, waters east of Vietnam. The eleven-dash line was drawn up by the Republic of China in 1947, the government of Washington’s ally Chiang Kai-shek, before he was driven to Taiwan by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party.
The 2016 tribunal concluded “that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.
China has not recognized the tribunal ruling, and until very recently, Manila did not recognize it either. The two countries engaged in negotiations over the waters for the past four years. But on July 12th, just one day before Pompeo’s statement, the Philippines officially broke away from its policy and asked China to respect the tribunal ruling. This decision was likely made with the foreknowledge of the coming shift in U.S. policy.
Pompeo’s statement raises a lot of questions. First and foremost, how far is the U.S. willing to go to counter China in the South China Sea? The U.S. and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty, does this mean the U.S. could go to war with China if it infringes on a reef in Manila’s EEZ?
With a recent uptick in U.S. Navy activity in the region, experts warn the risk of a military confrontation between the two powers is very high. A South China Sea expert told The South China Morning Post that the increased military activity from both sides has increased tensions “to an unprecedentedly high level.”
In September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly pledged that China would not militarize artificial islands in the Spratlys. Just one month later, in October 2015, the U.S. ran its first FONOP near the Spratly Islands since 2012. A U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, a feature that China turned into an artificial island. After a year of increased U.S. Naval patrols, China announced it was building “necessary military facilities” in the Spratly Islands.
What US is pushing
On July 13th, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out the Trump administration’s official policy towards China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Pompeo said the U.S. considers most of China’s claims in the region “unlawful.” Pompeo cited a 2016 ruling from an international tribunal in The Hague that sided with the Philippines over Beijing in a territorial dispute. The tribunal decision said China cannot claim any area within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Under UNCLOS, the EEZ is an area that extends 200 nautical miles off of a country’s coast, and that nation has exclusive rights to the resources in the zone.
While the Trump administration is using UNCLOS in its approach to counter Beijing, one fact Pompeo left out of his statement is that the U.S. never ratified the treaty. Pompeo wants Beijing to recognize the tribunal’s ruling based on a treaty the U.S. is not a party to. Like it so often does, the U.S. is only using international law in this case because it fits Washington’s agenda. ###