South China Sea - testing times


Photo Credit:

South China Sea (SCS) is increasingly in the news with speculations about a likely US-China confrontation. While actual conflict may not occur but it certainly is testing times. Ever since Red China professed her claim to the 9-Dash Line based on a map of the Kuomintang regime, it has claimed most of the SCS and gone in for a deliberately reclaiming reefs, even constructing airstrips on them, and disregarding the freedom of transit in open seas by other nations in complete disregard to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Chinese aggressive expansion to effectively control SCS is linked with her nuclear strategy. Chinese nuclear submarines have been probing SCS and China eventually aims to advance SSBNs from SCS to Pacific Ocean in a future time frame. The latest flashpoint occurred when US warship Lassen entered Zhubi Reef which China claims is part of China’s Nansha islands. Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted furiously by saying, “This action by the United States threatens China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangers the safety of personnel and facilities in the reef, and harms regional peace and stability”, the spokesperson urging the US to “immediately correct its wrongdoing.” The US warship was monitored, tracked and issued with warning, as per the spokesperson, adding that China will continue to watch the situation and “do whatever is necessary.” Zhubi Reef is an undersea rock in the SCS that China has built into an artificial island in the contested Spratly Islands. It wants it to be considered a real island, with a “territorial sea” surrounding it, implying 12-nm zone where Chinese domestic law prevails.

Ever since 1993 when China became a net importer of oil for the first time, China has been publicly declaring its intentions of stepping beyond its traditional continental land oriented security paradigms. Islands in SCS have multiple claimant countries but China has been muscling her way through. Creating artificial islands in contested waters is controversial but Beijing has raised the stakes further by starting to build military facilities on some of these artificial islands. By sending a warship in proximity Zhubi Reef, the US has signaled rejection of Chinese efforts to to rewrite the rules governing the sea and sky. International law clearly states the open sea is no one’s property, and such “freedom-of-navigation” voyages are standard elsewhere in the seven seas. According to UNCLOS, coastal states may construct artificial islands within “EEZ” extending 200 nautical miles off their coasts. Beyond that limit, the law allows no such projects. Zhubi Reef lies 500 nautical miles from Hainan Island, the nearest Chinese shoreline as peer the Google map. This Reef was a submerged atoll before China dredged the sea floor to create an island, then created an airstrip on it.

There is little doubt that it is an illegal claim by Beijing. Significantly, President Obama recently discussed the issue of Chinese activities of reclaiming land in SCS and building military facilities on them with President Xi Jinping over an informal dinner. Obama urged Xi to halt such activities but the latter apparently is in no mood to pay heed. Buoyed by her military and economic progress, Chinese mindset appears well rooted in her historical “Tian Xia” (under the Heaven) concept which traditionally views “all territories” as belonging to the Chinese, and due to which they attach no sense to territory. As far back as 2005, Lin Yazhou, then Deputy Political Commissar of PLAAF, stated, "When a nation grows strong enough, it practices hegemony. The sole purpose of power is to pursue power...Geography is destiny ……When a country begins to rise, it shall first set itself in an invincible position”. The question now is whether the foray of USS Lassen is going to be a lone affair. If US is serious about keeping sea routes free, it will have to challenge China’s claims by sending ships and planes into embattled waters and skies as a matter of course. On the other hand, if action of USS Larsen is not followed up, it would give the handle to China continue with her illegal actions, flout UNCLOS and be even more aggressive, beginning with militarizing the Zhubi Reef airstrip. Interestingly, in a legal setback for Beijing, Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration recently ruled it has jurisdiction to hear territorial claims that Philippines filed in 2013 against China over disputed areas in the SCS; Manila is seeking a ruling on its right to exploit the South China Sea waters in its 200-nautical mile EEZ, as allowed under the UNCLOS. It certainly is testing times in SCS.