“There should be no mistake. the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows as we do all around the world”
– Ashton Carter, US Secretary of Defence
Shadowed by a fleet of forty Chinese vessels, the Haiyang Shiyou drilling and exploration platform was escorted into the waters of the disputed Paracel Islands in May 2014. The flotilla included elements of the PLAN – China’s navy, which provided direct intelligence as well as logistical support. This calculated display of force on Beijing’s part was in line with its nine-dash territorial claim whereby the majority of the South China Sea is held under its control. This runs in direct contravention with the United Nations Law of the Sea (1990) which China signed in 1996. Under the resolution, territorial control for each nation extends out to 200 nautical miles from its shores, and is governed as a part of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, granting it the right to the resources within. China’s platform and flotilla is anchored within 140 nautical miles of Vietnam’s shores. This is a direct message of defiance to its regional competitors, and to the United States which has announced its vaunted “rebalancing” and “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific.
Encompassing three and a half million square kilometres, the South China Sea is one of the most important economic zones in the world. With more than one third of the world’s shipping passing through the area, the region has become increasingly significant thanks to the rapid development of China and the economies of South-East Asia.
China claims more than three-quarters of the South China Sea under its “nine-dotted line” policy. It is an irony that China’s claim relies upon the policy of the government it overthrew in 1947, when the Republic of China was dissolved and reformed into modern Taiwan, and whilst the two states have been at odds ever since, both retain this same claim over the Sea. These claims are one of the core sticking points for their regional neighbours. Under the United Nations Law of the Sea (1990), a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends 200 nautical miles from its coast line. As a signatory of the resolution, China’s claim conflicts with its own agreement on what constitutes territorial control at sea. To combat this, Beijing has invested much effort into dredging up vague historical links to the region, and engaged in an assertive game of chicken with its rapidly expanding Navy.
The Construction of artificial islands is the most controversial measure that China has sought to claim territory. According to US officials, China has reclaimed more than 1200 hectares of land by dredging strategically located reefs in the region. To put that figure in perspective, the total amount of land reclaimed by all other interested parties is put at a tiny 40 hectares total. In highly publicized surveillance images, the United States has highlighted the construction of a three kilometre runway on an atoll in Fiery Cross Reef. Such an airbase would allow the Chinese to launch a variety of aircraft, including combat interceptors. The fear for local military forces is that China now has the capability to enforce “air defence zones” where they effectively impose strict military control backed by their air-force that would solidify their territorial claims.
Currently, there are six regional states in a complicated dance of conflicting and aligning claims over the region. The most hotly contested is the claims of the Philippines, China and Taiwan over the Scarborough Shoal, where customs and coast guard vessels regularly clash and manoeuvre under the watchful eye of nearby national fleets. Similarly, the most violent skirmishes that have resulted in deaths at sea have been the fight over the Spratly and Paracel islands involving Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Further north-east is the dispute over the Natuna Islands between Indonesia, China, and Taiwan. And lastly in the Gulf of Thailand there’s Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. They still cannot agree over who controls the area’s fishing shoals.
Muddying up the picture further is the interest of outside regional powers, including Australia, Japan and, of course, the United States. To view the current conflicts as merely a reaction to China’s new found expansionist foreign-policy is therefore a mistake; while China is undoubtedly the common element in these disputes, it has become more of a catalyst to deep-rooted tensions that now have a very real potential to spill into a messy regional conflict.
Aside from being a super-highway for maritime freight, the region is also rich in both natural and energy resources. Initial probes into hydrocarbon deposits have uncovered up to 17.7 billion tons of untapped crude oil. The region’s natural gas deposits are similarly estimated at up to 900 trillion square feet, especially within the highly contested Reed Bank island chain. Compare these figures to the estimated 13 billion tons of oil within Kuwait as well as potential gas reserves bigger than the world’s second largest field in Urengoy, Russia, it soon becomes evident that the scramble to secure territory is for more than just prestige.
Strategically, imposing absolute control with a strong enough naval force would potentially give a state control over three of the most important straits in the world. An estimated US$5.3 trillion passes through Malacca, Luzon and Lombok. These lanes have traditionally been policed and remained open under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam, however a resurgent China appears to be rewriting the rules, and aiming to be the big player in its own back yard.
Beijing is playing a dangerous game. Far from legitimizing its claims, the presence of its navy and the construction of artificial islands has so far fed fuel to regional suspicions and antagonized previously complacent neighbours. The scramble to secure territorial claims has seen an unprecedented boom in local military spending with the Stockholm Independent Peace Research Institute placing the total spending figure at around US$40 billion by 2016. By undermining the UN Law of the Sea, China has opened a figurative pandora’s box whereby all claims are once more up in the air. By manoeuvring conventional forces it has only set a precedent for its potential adversaries to follow suit. If Beijing had sought to counter America’s renewed interest in the Pacific, it is arguable that it has instead miscalculated. By being brash and bold, potential regional partners have scrambled to renew and entrench ties with the USA.
In a recent announcement at ASEAN, the Chinese delegation confirmed that it had ceased construction on the artificial reefs. Whilst a tentative step at diffusing future conflict, China now finds that the worlds eyes are upon it, and how it take’s these first crucial steps as a new superpower may define its rise into the future.
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