Western press coverage of the South China Sea situation has been shallow. An accurate and detailed history of this dispute is described in The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia” by Bill Hayton released by Yale University Press in 2014.
The Philippines had asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague to clarify the status of those contested reefs, rocks, shoals, etc. based on the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea . The Hague finally ruled against China, declaring the reefs and rocks not constituting territorial land. China is not party to this Court, but neither is the U.S., which earlier had rejected this same Court’s rulings relative to the U.S. mining of harbors in Nicaragua. But our refusal to obey UNCLOS undermines any American use of UNCLOS to condemn China’s claims.
So what is the basis for the “U-shaped map” used by China to claim control of the continental shelf called the South China Sea? The original claim was an 11-dash line laid down by the Chinese Parliament in May 1947; this is pre-Communist China under the Kuomintang and led by Chiang Kai-shek. In 1999, China and Vietnam precisely defined this line in the Gulf of Tonkin, reducing two dashes to a total of nine. In May 2009, the PRC added a dash when it issued a new map showing Taiwan completely within PRC territory, producing the resulting 10-dash map that is argued today.
And what is the big deal about the South China Sea? Most of it is not rich with fish, oil or other resources. But it is territory, and many of the islands in this area remain confused territory after the end of World War II and the short restoration of Western colonial rule. In one case in 1956, a renegade named Tomas Cloma occupied the disputed Spratly Islands and, without support from his Philippine government, declared himself head of the “Free Territory of Freedomland.” This was a challenge to Taiwan, the China mainland, and the French who still occupied Vietnam. It was Taiwan that sent a navy ship that forced Clomas to admit he was trespassing.
Islands and reefs throughout the South China Sea include claims by not only China but Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia. Those members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN can talk and resolve issues. China is quite willing to arrange for joint development of resources throughout its U-shaped region as long as it is recognized that China has the territorial rights.
So what are “territorial rights”?
UNCLOS established that “…coastal states could claim a territorial sea 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) wide, an extended economic zone out to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) and perhaps an ‘extended continental shelf’ beyond that.” Definitions include: ‘islands that can support human habitation or economic life; rocks (including sandbanks and reefs above water at high tide) that cannot support either; and low tide elevations which, as the name suggests, are only dry at low tide.” Each category in turn generates different territorial seas and EEZ.
While the U.S. has sent spy ships with tow-gear to detect submarines up to the 12-mile territorial limit, China cites the UNCLOS section requiring permission for “marine scientific research” in the EEZ or 200 miles out. Unfortunately, nowhere in UNCLOS is there a prohibition of military activities in the EEZ but many countries disagree, including China, Brazil, India, Malaysia and the Maldives. The U.S. therefore pursues its “Freedom of Navigation” activities to challenge any assertion of 200 mile military exclusion, and like the school yard bully, sails through these areas just to prove that it can.
It is important to note that the 200 mile EEZ does not in any way impede non-military commercial traffic, and the U.S. cannot claim that it is sailing through the 200 mile Chinese EEZ in order to protect the world’s commercial shipping. The U.S. is asserting its military mobility because it would otherwise be more difficult to send a navy to the Middle East if the U.S. had to stay out of the U-shaped EEZ.
A final myth is that China is building a world power navy. Hayton details the China naval modernization and it is a small “green water” navy for self defense, not an international-capable blue water navy. This matches with China’s long history of not being aggressive and their much smaller military budget, in stark contrast to the U.S. that has a long history of overseas invasions and a military larger than the next ten countries militaries combined.
Hayton points out the dangers of big countries driving the argument, well-stated by the Philippino Secretary-General Renato Reyes: “if you bring in one superpower to oppose the other, then superpower dynamics begins to push the issue and marginalizes a peaceful settlement.”
John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State. University.