The dismissal of all of China’s claims on South China Sea (SCS) as without legal basis by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague on the basis of a case filed by the Philippines in January 2013 is a stark reminder that no permanent member of the UN Security Council has ever complied with a ruling by the PCA on an issue involving the Law of the Sea, which they deemed violative of their sovereignty or national security interests.
Trouble is, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — to which both China and Japan acceded in 1996 — expanded the size of the maritime zones over which states could claim various kinds of jurisdiction (full sovereignty over a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, limited sovereignty over a 24-nautical-mile contiguous zone, economic rights in a 200-nautical-mile EEZ, and so on). What it led to was an inevitable clash of interests — overlapping claims to rights that were of growing economic as well as strategic value. China, for instance, claims island groups that Japan holds – notably the Senkaku Islands, which are located at the lower end of the Ryukyu island chain approximately 120 nautical miles to the northeast of Taiwan – and disputes Japanese claims to certain seabed resources. In 2013, China unexpectedly declared an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, to include the air space over and around disputed islands that overlaps not only Japan’s ADIZ but also South Korea’s.
The territorial disputes surrounding the SCS, home to more than two hundred small islands, rocks, and coral reefs, points to a new front for attrition. Brunei claims a southern reef of the Spratly Islands. Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys. The Philippines claims eight islands in the Spratlys and significant portions of the South China Sea. Vietnam, Taiwan, and China each claims much of the South China Sea, as well as all of the Spratly and Paracel island groups. The region of maritime Southeast Asia, consisting of six countries that surround the South China Sea on three sides — the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam — is thus a prickly bone of contention.
In a larger context, it also points out that military power has been quietly moving from Europe to Asia, where authentic civilian-military, post-industrial complexes are being built, with an emphasis on naval forces at the heart of which lies the South China Sea (SCS). Arms imports to Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have gone up by 84 per cent, 146 per cent, and 722 per cent respectively since 2000. The spending, notably by Vietnam, Malaysia and China, is on naval and air platforms: surface warships, submarines with advanced missile systems, and long-range fighter jets. Malaysia opened a submarine base on the island of Borneo, as a counterfoil to China developing an underground base for twenty nuclear submarines on Hainan Island on the other side of the South China Sea. The South China Sea may well constitute the military front line of the coming decades, according to an analogy, as much as German soil constituted the military front line of the Cold War.
Why not? The South China Sea is said to be the ‘heart’ of Eurasia’s navigable rimland, dotted by the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar straits, where global sea routes converge. Through this throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans passes more than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. In a way it is more important than the Persian Gulf.
China stakes claim to the heart of the entire South China Sea in a grand loop — the “cow’s tongue” as the loop is called — surrounding these island groups from China’s Hainan Island south 1,200 miles to near Singapore and Malaysia. Trouble is, practical considerations govern the settlement of the border dispute, not the inflexible historical perceptions. Historical ‘claims’ often mislead. Iraq, for instance, asserted that Kuwait was previously under Ottoman rule and that Iraq ‘inherited’ the right to rule Kuwait from the Ottomans. Historians take pains to show that Kuwait was never a part of Iraq, and indeed that Kuwait was independent from the ancient Ottoman Empire, from which Iraq was later carved by colonial powers. The Qing dynasty, from its foundation in 1644 to its zenith in the 18th century, took part in massive expansion of Chinese territory to the west and south.
In the nineteenth century, with the expiry of the Qing dynasty — the ‘sick man of East Asia’ — China lost much of its territory—the southern tributaries of Nepal and Burma to Great Britain; Indochina to France; Taiwan and the tributaries of Korea and Sakhalin to Japan; and Mongolia, Amuria, and Ussuria to Russia, which interestingly became later the basis of its ‘historical’ claim to the vast sweep of land it once had. Unreconciled to many of these Qing territorial losses and guided thus by a ‘history’ of one-time possession or exploration, China picked up territorial disputes with all of its neighbours, though most of which have been settled by now. The trouble is it still makes unrealised territorial claims — the island of Taiwan, 45,000 square miles of territory in three parcels disputed with India, smaller border claims with other neighbours, and several sets of islands in the East China and South China seas.
China needs to realise that its dogged intransigence runs counter to its doctrine of “peaceful rise” as it may well lead to the bandwagoning of nations under the US auspices locked in an adversarial relationship with it.
Besides its economic and political clout all through the Asian region, the US nurses defence relationships of multiple kinds around China’s immediate periphery with not only South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, but also with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Already the US with its Pacific Command headquarters in Honolulu, its giant military base on the Pacific island of Guam (6,000 miles from the continental US, but only 2,000 miles from China) and its dominating naval presence in the South and East China Seas breathes down China’s neck. Alongside shelving sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas and minimising tensions with ASEAN and with Japan, China’s calling card should be to emphasise multilateral diplomacy and economic integration with its neighbours.
The author is a teacher and social commentator