Originally Published 2012-07-05 00:00:00 Published on Jul 05, 2012
Though South China Sea has remained contested for several decades, the recent tensions surrounding these waters have heightened the potential for it to emerge as a major flashpoint. China's recent steps have made the involvement of external powers very likely.
China's South China Sea claims: Strategic implications
The South China Sea has remained contested but stable for several decades. This is changing. The recent tensions surrounding the area have shown its potential to emerge as a major flashpoint between China and other powers in Asia. Control over parts of the 1.3 mn square mile waterway are disputed between China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam. China’s recent provocations have made involvement of external powers increasingly likely. Involvement of major external actors such as the US, India and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) have brought new dynamics into play in an already complicated dispute.

The fight over the area has been intensifying over the last decade. One of the major incidents took place in 2005 when two Vietnamese fishing boats from Thanh Hoa province were fired upon by Chinese ships. Nine Vietnamese were killed and China captured the boat. In 2009, there was another incident with Chinese ships accused of harassing one of the US surveillance ships in the area. The US Defense department said in a report that five Chinese vessels "shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity to USNS Impeccable, in an apparent coordinated effort to harass the US ocean surveillance ship while it was conducting routine operations in international waters." The report added that the crewmembers from the Chinese vessels waved Chinese flags and asked the US ship to leave the area.

Another more recent and much publicized event took place in May 2011, involving a clash between Chinese maritime patrol vessels and Vietnamese Binh Minh 02, an oil and gas survey ship. Vietnam stated on May 26, 2011, that Chinese boats intentionally cut the survey ship’s cables in Vietnamese waters. Chinese authorities denied these allegations, but it nevertheless stirred large protests against China in Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Barely weeks later, on June 09, 2011, there was another incident between China and Vietnam. The incident took place well within the Vietnamese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between three Chinese fishery patrol vessels and a Norwegian-flagged seismic conducting ship that was hired by Vietnam Oil & Gas Corporation (PetroVietnam). Vietnam once again complained about the Chinese vessels deliberately cutting the exploration cables. Reacting to the second incident, the Vietnamese spokeswoman Pham Phuong Nga said, "China’s systematic action is aimed at turning the undisputed area belonging to Vietnam into an area under dispute in order to materialize China’s nine-dotted line claim in the East Sea. This is unacceptable."

The most recent incident involved China and Philippines. In April 2012, two Chinese surveillance vessels and the Philippine warship Gregorio del Pilar were involved in a clash in the Scarborough Shoal, an area claimed by both China and Philippines. This was a relatively protracted conflict and was resolved only two weeks ago with both nations agreeing to withdraw their naval vessels from the area due to bad weather. The Philippine navy wanted to arrest a group of Chinese fisherman who had gone into their territory but they were unable to do so. Meanwhile, the US and Philippines held their annual military exercise in the middle of April which China construed as muscle-flexing. In retaliation, the Chinese foreign ministry asked a Philippine archaeological ship to leave the Scarborough Shoal on April 16. A few weeks later, on May 7, China toughened its stance further by making a serious representation with Alex Chua, Charge D’Affaires of the Philippine Embassy in China. China also issued travel advisories to those travelling to the Philippines and strengthened trade barriers, affecting the export of pineapples and bananas to China. By May 16, both the nations effected a fishing ban in the Scarborough Shoal. Finally, the two countries withdrew their vessels from the area in mid-June, but this was due to bad weather.

The conflict is far from over. Soon after the withdrawal of the Chinese and Philippine vessels from the region, the Chinese State Council established a prefecture-level city of Sansha to administer the Xisha (Paracel), Zhongsha and Nansha (Spratlys) islands and the waters around these islands. Earlier, there was a county-level administration office for the islands located in Yongxing Island, part of the Xisha Islands. In reaction, Vietnam on the same day (June 21) approved a law claiming sovereignty and jurisdiction over Xisha and Nansha islands. Earlier in 2011, Philippines had also passed legislation on the South China Sea and now calls it as the West Philippine Sea.

Meanwhile, the Chinese oil company CNOOC, on its website, announced last week that it was inviting foreign partners to jointly explore and develop nine oil blocks in the western part of the South China Sea. Vietnam has challenged this and called the Chinese moves "illegal," while stating that China is encroaching onto Vietnamese territory. China reacted saying these tenders were in accordance to the Chinese and international law and urged Vietnam not to aggravate tension in this regard.

In further moves, China has started combat-ready patrols in South China Sea. Meanwhile, there are Vietnamese air patrols over the Spratly Islands, and the Chinese remain critical of such measures by Vietnam. Reacting to the Vietnamese patrols, the foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Yansheng said that China would "resolutely oppose any militarily provocative behavior."

All these incidents reveal a toughening stance on the part of China on South China Sea. The Chinese posturing has several strategic implications. Increased regional rivalry, mutual suspicion and competition have come to define the relations between China and its smaller neighbours. It appears that China miscalculated the response of its smaller neighbours - Beijing clearly did not expect the kind of high-pitched response from these countries given that China has increased its overall power quotient. To some extent, the stronger responses by China’s neighbours might be the result of strengthened role and involvement of external powers in the region. Despite deep economic ties between these powers and China, the smaller neighbours have become much bolder in seeking external interventions as a means to beef up their own defences against China. Vietnam, for instance, has begun fresh military procurement in order to strengthen its internal defence capabilities while also building external alliances and partnerships. This has resulted in furthering the regional security dilemma.

Why does South China Sea matter to China? Is the new approach driven by territorial claims, economic considerations or strategic impetus or a combination of all three? Also what are the strategic implications for Asia of this new posturing?

To China, the South China Sea has come to mean more than just territorial claims or economic benefits, though these are also important. In economic terms, it is quite understandable that China wants control of the area since large volume of trade pass through this region. The abundance of oil and gas resources along with other natural resources makes the territorial claims even more intense.

Having said that, it is China’s strategic interests that are probably the crucial drivers here. China reportedly has established a signals intelligence station on Rocky Island, north of Woody Island. Rocky Island offers significant strategic and military advantages to Beijing, as it is one of the highest points in the area, thus offers a good coverage of the activities in this region.1 The same study by John C. Baker and David G. Wieneck also suggested that China has built "a 350-meter pier and a 2,600-meter airstrip, which is capable of handling all types of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft." The report adds that besides Silkworm anti-ship cruise missile installations, there are oil tanks, gun emplacements and ammunition storage bunkers on Woody Island, all of which point to the possibility that China has long-term plans for these islets.

Lastly, nationalism has become an important factor driving the new Chinese approach. The sense of nationalism particularly among the younger generation of China has led to a greater emphasis on territorial sovereignty. This is manifested in the making of expanding sovereignty claims. How far will China go back into history to make these claims, is an important question.

China’s claims can be traced back to the 1930s when official maps showed the entire territory as Chinese. Besides, Chinese historians have shown remains of ancient pottery on the atolls as proof substantiating their claims to these islands. The Chinese claims also appear to contradict the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China ratified the UNCLOS in 1996 although it does not stand by many of the clauses and cites a 1998 internal legislation to prove its historical claim over South China Sea. With China’s accession to the UNCLOS, it, in a sense, acceded to other states’ rights including EEZ or continental shelf and the natural resources thereof. China is now trying to strengthen its claims through the provision of the 1998 Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf that gives cover for China to its historic rights. For instance, article 14 of the 1998 Law says, provisions of this Law "shall not affect the historic rights enjoyed by the People’s Republic of China."2 The fact of the matter is that with China’s accession to the UNCLOS, Beijing and other parties are guided by UNCLOS and not China’s internal legislation. International law takes precedence over domestic law when it comes to multi-party international disputes.

In fact, Articles 55 to 75 of the UNCLOS have dealt with EEZs in detail explaining the limits and activities allowed under international law. Also article 121 is particularly important in this regard. It says, "Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no economic zone or continental shelf." Therefore, countries in the region, wanting to establish EEZs, have attempted to build structures as a means of justification.3

While the Chinese behavior may be legitimate from its point of view, its disregard for international law and the UNCLOS and for its neighbour’s interests will have long-term implications for regional security. Incidentally, the recent events have also brought out the differences within ASEAN. As long as economic issues were the focus of the group, it functioned well and was displayed as a model for other regional groupings. However, it appears unable to present a united front when political issues such as territory and sovereignty are brought into the forum.

On the other hand, Chinese behavior was also partly responsible for bringing the US back to Asia. If the US was distracted from its commitment to Asia, given the decade-long mission in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the domestic fiscal compulsions, it is amply clear that the US is now here to stay. The repeated statements by US officials highlight the nervousness as well as the enthusiasm to cash in on an opportunity that welcomes the US back with greater vigour.

Another consequence of the heightened tensions is the developing arms race in the region. Smaller neighbours such as Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia are on a major arms buying spree. Vietnam has begun beefing up its military capabilities particularly in the maritime domain with addition of new submarines. Malaysia too has been adding to its inventory. Singapore plans to strengthen its submarine strength with two additional submarines. Bigger players such as South Korea, Japan and Australia are not lagging behind.4 The fact is that the military expenditure of these countries has been rising in the last few years.

Implications for India

Traditionally, India maintained a neutral stance on South China Sea. However, India has become proactive on South China Sea in the last few years given the rising profile of India as well as the changing dynamics of Asia. For instance, India was less ambivalent at one of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meetings in 2010, stating that open seas and freedom of navigation are important and every country must respect other countries’ legitimate interests. In July last year, India reacted sharply when the Chinese navy contacted one of the Indian naval vessels INS Airavat that was on a friendly visit to Vietnam, saying that "India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law." India similarly stood its ground when it came to developing oil blocks in Vietnam although it does appear that Hanoi was keener on putting a brave front, in determining its hold on the territory as well as in seeking external alliances and partnerships.5 Vietnam was certainly disappointed when India had to pull out of Vietnam owing to commercial considerations although China has construed this as India succumbing to its pressure.6

What are India’s options? While trade flows are an important consideration and therefore one may see an active India in this region, there are strategic motives that should also inform India’s policy approach. India’s strengthened partnership with Southeast Asian nations, increasingly strategic in nature, will call for greater Indian support to these countries on the issue. Insistence on freedom of navigation and respect for each other’s territorial integrity are factors that should guide India’s policy. Instability in India’s neighbourhood including Southeast Asia does not augur well for India. Therefore, it is imperative for India to take an active role in shaping the regional dynamics that corresponds to India’s growing influence.

(Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: South China Sea Monitor


1 David G. Wieneck, "South China Sea Flashpoint," China Brief, vol. 1, issue 2, July 24, 2001, available at http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=28452&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=191&no_cache=1. Also see John C. Baker and David G. Wieneck, Cooperative Monitoring in the South China Sea: Satellite Imagery, Confidence-Building Measures, and the Spratly Islands Dispute (Praeger Publications: Westport, CT, 2002), pp. 52-53.
2 Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Act, adopted at the third session of the Standing Committee of the Ninth National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (26 June 1998), available at www.un.org/Depts/los/LEGISLATIONANDTREATIES/STATEFILES/CHN.htm
3 Joshua P. Rowan, "UNCLOS and the Sovereignty Claim in the South China Sea," Asian Survey, Vol. XLV, No. 3, May/June 2005, available at http://www.nguyenthaihocfoundation.org/lichsuVN/UNCLOS-sovereignty.pdf.
4 Amol Sharma, Jeremy Page, James Hookway and Rachel Pannett, "Asia New Arms Race," Asian Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2011, available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704881304576094173297995198.html.
5 While Vietnam has been proactive in seeking regional and extra-regional alliances and partnerships, including India and the US, New Delhi has been reacting rather slow, possibly wary of Chinese reactions. India’s response to the Vietnamese offer of the naval base is a case in point.
6 Sandeep Dikshit, "India finds oil drilling off Vietnam a losing proposition," May 11, 2012, The Hindu, available at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article3405680.ece.

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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