The on-going conflict between China on the one hand and the “Free World” led by the US on the other over the South China Sea (SCS), is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future. China’s irredentist claims in the strategically located waterway and the Western powers’ pressing need for free navigation in that choke point seem irreconcilable. The conflict is becoming shaper with both the US and China indulging in aggressive military maneuvers and the US mounting economic pressure and imposing sanctions on China.
On August 26, the US announced that it is imposing visa restrictions on Chinese nationals “responsible for, or complicit in, either the large-scale reclamation, construction, or militarisation of disputed outposts in the SCS, or China’s coercion against Southeast Asian claimants to inhibit their access to offshore resources.”
In addition, the Department of Commerce added 24 Chinese state-owned enterprises to the ‘Entity List’, including several subsidiaries of China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), a mega conglomerate.
The US State Department said that since 2013, China has been using its state-owned enterprises to dredge and reclaim more than 3,000 acres on disputed features in the SCS, “destabilising the region, trampling on the sovereign rights of its neighbours, and causing untold environmental devastation.”
“CCCC led the destructive dredging of the PRC’s South China Sea outposts and is also one of the leading contractors used by Beijing in its global One Belt One Road strategy. CCCC and its subsidiaries have engaged in corruption, predatory financing, environmental destruction, and other abuses across the world,” the US alleged.
“The United States will act until we see Beijing discontinue its coercive behaviour in the South China Sea (SCS), and we will continue to stand with allies and partners in resisting this destabilising activity,” the State Department warned.
The SCS has been a flashpoint for years, with several countries claiming ownership of its small islands and reefs, and with it, access to its enormous resources. The SCS is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes carrying US$ 3.5 trillion worth of trade annually. According to China Power over 64% of China’s maritime trade transited the SCS in 2016, while nearly 42% of Japan’s passed through it. The US is less reliant on SCS with just over 14% of its maritime trade passing through it. The SCS is estimated to have 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Laying claim to these resources are China, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. China’s reliance on the SCS makes it vulnerable to maritime trade disruptions. In 2003, the then Chinese President, Hu Jintao, drew attention to the potential threat posed by “certain major powers” aiming to control the Strait of Malacca, and highlighted the need for China to adopt new strategies to address this concern. China subsequently created what is known as the “Nine-Dash Line”, a protective ring and supply network around the claimed Chinese territory at sea, rather like the Great Wall of China on the mainland.
Using the controversial Nine-Dash line, China began ramping up activities in the SCS, starting with the Paracel Islands in the 1970s and 1980s, the Spratly Islands in the 1990s, and the Scarborough Shoal in the early 2000s.
China began to assert its authority by reclaiming several reefs and atolls in the Spratly islands in the SCS, which is described as the world’s greatest feats in maritime engineering and military construction. It has built 3,000 metre runways, naval berths, hangars, reinforced ammunition bunkers, missile silos, radar sites, hospitals, and living and recreational facilities on the reclaimed islands.
China has been using force to assert its claims. A Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel close to the Paracel Islands, which China and Vietnam claim as theirs. A Malaysian oil exploration project also found its operations disrupted off the coast of Borneo by a Chinese marine survey vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, backed by China’s Navy and Coast Guard. Malaysia said that Chinese coastguard and navy ships had encroached into its waters at least 89 times between 2016 and 2019. Earlier this year, there were also reports of a Chinese government survey ship “tagging” a Malaysian oil-exploration vessel within the Malaysian EEZ.
Consequently, the USS America, a US Navy amphibious assault ship, joined by an Australian frigate, was deployed to waters nearby. The escalation continued with the deployment of two US Navy guided missile destroyers, USS Bunker Hill and USS Barry to the Paracel and Spratly Islands.
Most recently, China closed off a swathe of sea space to conduct naval exercises in the waters surrounding the Paracel Islands. The US Navy deployed not one but two aircraft carrier strike groups - the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan - for joint operations in the region. In addition to the US Navy fighters conducting carrier operations and the P8-Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft criss-crossing the sea, the US Air Force sent a B-52 strategic bomber for good measure. With Trump and Xi being aggressive, a military confrontation cannot be ruled out.
This aerial photo shows cars waiting to be exported at a port in Lianyungang in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. With regard to the business interests of China it has exerted authority over the South China Sea which is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes (AFP)
2016 Chinese Statement
To affirm China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the SCS, China issued a statement in 2016, the year in which the International Arbitration Court pronounced its ruling on the SCS which went against China.
Beijing’s statement said that its claims in SCS goes back 2000 years in history when it discovered, named and began administering the islands “peacefully”. With the defeat of Japan in World War II, China resumed sovereignty over SCS (Nanhai Zhudao in Chinese). In 1947, the then Nationalist Chinese Government, updated the map of the SCS to show the Nine-Dash-Line. This map was officially published and made known to the world by the Chinese Government in February 1948.
After Mao’s Communists took over in 1949, a series of legal instruments, such as the 1958 Declaration on China’s Territorial Sea; the 1992 Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone; the 1998 Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf; and the 1996 Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on the Ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; reaffirmed China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the SCS.
By these instruments China has been claiming sovereignty over Nanhai Zhudao (South China Sea Islands), consisting of Dongsha Qundao (Pratas Islands), Xisha Qundao (Paracel Islands), Zhongsha Qundao (Zhogsha Islands) and Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands) and the internal waters, territorial sea and contiguous zones.
Commitment To Freedom of Navigation
However, despite the military maneuvers and grandstanding, China is officially committed to respecting and upholding the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by all states under international law in the SCS and has said that it is ready to work with other coastal states and the international community to ensure the safety of and the unimpeded access to the international shipping lanes in the SCS.
But China’s opponents are not ready to accept these assurances. First of all, they dispute the historicity of China’s claim. They point out that the 1947 Chinese constitution drafted by the Nationalist government had stated that Hainan province is the southern extremity of the country, not the Nine-Dash-Line.
At any rate in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague tossed out Beijing’s ‘Nine-Dash Line’ claim, saying that China’s “historical rights” had no legal basis. The ruling also said that the rocks and the partly submerged features on which China had built its naval and aerial facilities, were within the 200 nautical-mile (370.4km) EEZ of the Philippines, as defined by the UN. The Court also established the EEZs of Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam, boosting their positions in relation to China.
Furthermore, the Court said that China’s reclaimed areas and artificial islands are not entitled to a 12-nautical-mile (22.2km) territorial sea, because they were not habitable in their original form. As such, freedom of navigation and overflight should be allowed in those areas.
However, China refused to participate in the arbitration case, and dismissed the ruling as “null and void”. The conflict thus continues making the SCS one of the most explosive areas in the world.