Sunday, June 19, 2011

South China Sea Round Up: China angles for Ma Admin Cooperation?

Map of the South China Sea claims

The current UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)(Wiki summary) began as a conference in in 1973 and was concluded in 1982. It replaces sets of treaties on the territories and their surrounding ocean control dating back to 1958, along with earlier customary and legal practices. Because it enables nations to claim the seabed and oceans surrounding what are essentially uninhabited and useless rocks in the sea, it has led to situations of overlapping claims and tension in several areas of the world as nations rush to grab previously undefined and unclaimed territory, and manufacture "historical" reasons to claim it.

It's been dominating the news lately....

Ian Storey, who writes frequently on China and its neighbors, was interviewed at NBR this week on the South China Sea. He was asked:
What are the chances of conflict breaking out as a result of the disputes?
I do not think there is any immediate danger of a full-blown conflict in the South China Sea, as this is in no country’s interests. What worries me is the increasing frequency of skirmishes at sea involving warships, vessels from maritime agencies, survey ships, and fishing boats, which raises the risk of an accidental clash at sea. Such a clash, which could easily escalate into something more serious, would raise tensions even further and fuel instability. Unfortunately, there are no conflict avoidance mechanisms in place between China and the countries of Southeast Asia. There is thus an urgent need to implement such mechanisms before tense stand-offs spiral out of control.
This position is a common one. James Manicom at The Diplomat argued that the row between Japan and China over the Senkakus, which led to an agreement to jointly exploit the Chunxiao Field nearby, shows that these conflicts need not result in war. But as Manicom notes, Japan has a substantial military and is backed by the US, whereas Vietnam is no match for China and the Hukbong Dagat ng Pilipinas is no threat either. In the South China Sea, things may not end in war simply because the side opposed to China is incapable of offering it. Unless the US decides to stick a hand in.....

The interesting news this week is that China let drop a hint it wants cooperation with Taiwan on the South China Sea. The Jamestown Brief has the call...
Press release No.186, issued by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 7, emphasized Taiwan’s support for the U.S. position on the principle of “freedom of navigation” (, June 7; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], June 8). On June 15, Yang Yi, spokesman for the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, responded that China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their surrounding waters, and that people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait have a shared responsibility to safeguard sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters (Xinhua News Agency, June 15). Yang’s statement has been interpreted by some Chinese media as Beijing’s desire to cooperate with Taiwan on managing maritime disputes in the region (Global Times, June 17).
Readers may recall that there was some talk of CCP-KMT cooperation on the Senkaku issue as well. China has a basic packet of behaviors it engages in irrespective of the territory it is currently targeting, and if Taiwan is involved, angling for cooperation from the KMT is one. Readers familiar with the Tibet situation will recall that KMT agents among Tibetan groups in India and elsewhere, while opposing the CCP, also attempt to block moves that support Tibet regaining its independence.

However, the Jamestown Brief notes that the Ma Administration's moves to beef up Taiwan's military presence in the area may separate it from China:
The Ma government’s emphasis on the “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea is a subtle but significant departure from the administration’s low-key approach and could have important implications for cross-Strait relations. Coupled with the Taiwanese government’s plan to possibly deploy patrol vessels and additional military assets on the disputed islets may signal a rethink and a possible shift in the administration’s position on maritime disputes vis-à-vis China. Indeed, in spite of the growing tensions and conflict in the South China Sea, since President Ma came into office in 2008, Taiwan had been relatively quiet about the South China Sea. This led some observers to suspect that the Ma administration was leaning too much toward China (China Post, April 18). If, in fact, the Ma administration intends to draw a distinction between Taiwan’s and China’s interpretation of its territorial claim, it would demonstrate Taiwan as an independent claimant to the dispute. This will likely lead to more friction between Taiwan and China over competing maritime claims. Amid growing concerns about his administration’s increasing tilt toward China, Ma’s shift may be seen as a sign of reassurance by the current government to regional neighbors and the United States that it will maintain a balance while still pursuing cross-Strait rapprochement.
This move will also pay dividends domestically. The Chen Administration also milked military posturing in the South China Sea to make itself look tough at home.

Another common tactic China uses in its territorial expansion is to attempt to prevent internationalization of the issue. This week China took another verbal shot at nations attempt to bring in outsiders (the US, in other words). China's goal is to face down the smaller nations individually. Since the nations bordering the South China Sea have conflicting claims to the region, this may not be difficult.

Meanwhile, the news this week rolled. Absurdly, Philippines has begun calling the South China Sea "the West Philippine Sea", exampled in this report of Manila urging the UN to enforce the UNCLOS. For the third straight week protesters convened outside the China embassy in Hanoi, protesting Chinese moves against Vietnam in the area. Philippines also removed wooden border markers on what it considers its territory, but carefully refrained from speculating about whose they might be.

China's position on the South China Sea is also reviewed at In "Creeping Jurisdiction Must Stop" the authors argue:
China’s claims to those resources rest in part on historic claims illustrated in a map in which a series of nine dashed lines indicate some degree of jurisdiction over virtually all of the waters of the region (a similar claim has been made by Taiwan). With regard to U.S. naval operations, China has argued that the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) prohibits foreign military operations within its EEZ, a contention found nowhere in the text of the convention itself. China has raised the stakes by stating that control of the South China Sea and its resources is a core national interest on par with its claims to Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang.

Yet Chinese claims are ambiguous. Does the nine-dash chart signify territorial claims to the South China Sea and the seafloor, or does it apply only to the rocks and their territorial sea within the marked zone? Are the claims really a “core interest,” or are they a starting point for negotiating the division of fishing and energy resources of the region?
I don't think the claims are a starting point for negotiation but a simple declaration which sooner or later China will have to back up by force. The fact that the dashed lines go through the EEZ of the Natuna Islands (Indonesia) suggests that it is the seafloor and economic resources China is claiming. Why else draw the line there?

Note that despite pious commentary from US officials on UNCLOS, the US has signed but never ratified that agreement, it merely says it will follow it. However, DoD officials are keenly aware of how this weakens the US position, and in the recent 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, argued that the US should accede to UNCLOS.
The effect of changing climate on the Department's operating environment is evident in the maritime commons of the Arctic. The opening of the Arctic waters in the decades ahead which will permit seasonal commerce and transit presents a unique opportunity to work collaboratively in multilateral forums to promote a balanced approach to improving human and environmental security in the region. In that effort, DoD must work with the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security to address gaps in Arctic communications, domain awareness, search and rescue, and environmental observation and forecasting capabilities to support both current and future planning and operations. To support cooperative engagement in the Arctic, DoD strongly supports accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
While DoD is discussing the Arctic, another flashpoint being heated up by the humans around it, this also applies to the South China Sea; it is ridiculous for Washington to accuse China of not following a convention that the US has never officially ratified.
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Nathan W. Novak (李漢聲) said...


You may want to check out Peter Kien-Hong Yu, "The Chinese (Broken) U-Shaped Line in the South China Sea: Points, Lines, and Zones," _Contemporary Southeast Asia_, 25: 3 (Dec., 2003), pp. 405-430 for more on "The Republic of China's" South China Sea policy.


Anonymous said...

KMT agents among Tibetan groups in India and elsewhere

Got a source for that? I'm about as pro-Tibet as they come and I've never heard whisper of KMT agents among Tibetan groups in India, at least in the last few decades. Google doesn't shot anything either, other than your claim here. I'd be interested in seeing factual evidence of it.

Michael Turton said...

Sorry anon, it's from a talk I wrote about:

Thomas said...

How is ridiculous for the US to criticize China for not following the UNCLOS if the entire basis for China's obscene territorial claim in the area is supposedly the UNCLOS? I am not saying that the lack of accession to the UNCLOS does not weaken the US position, but I see no issue with drawing attention to the fact that the Chinese are very very creatively interpreting a UN treaty in order to justify expansionism.

Michael Turton said...

When China says that the US is violating its EEZ and foreign warships can't operate there, it's not in the agreement. China is simply inventing what the UNCLOS says. US points the finger.

China's claim is another retrojected claim into the past, isn't based on UNCLOS. It just cherrypicks what it needs from the text -- like any findamentalist.

Thomas said...

China's claim is partially based on the UNCLOS and partially based on Chinese invention. I did not say that China's claim was really in line with the UNCLOS. Rather, I said that the basis for China's claims is "supposedly" the UNCLOS.

China is creatively interpreting two different elements of the UNCLOS, one of which allows archipelagic states to claim 200-mile EEZs from island to island in order to create a more integral maritime territory that is easier to exploit. This is how many Pacific Island states abide, legally, by the UNCLOS, and it is a creative claim because China is not an archipelagic state. The second element allows for the exploitation of seas and seabeds in EEZs (which is not the same thing as claiming sovereignty over the waters and denying others access). China interprets this as sovereignty, which it is not. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with having Americans criticize China for getting creative with the UNCLOS. The argument is, "If you say you abide by the UNCLOS, then you should really abide by the UNCLOS. Then you will have a defensible position." But, then again, if China really did abide by the UNCLOS to the letter, then the US would have little to complain about. UN ships could operate freely in the sea as long as they were not extracting resources, while China probably would not have a zone that covered the whole sea.

Therefore, I don't see why the US is on shaky ground in asking the Chinese to abide by that treaty in line with Chinese claims. China already says it abides by the treaty. It would be a different matter if the Chinese did not wish to be a part of the UNCLOS, indicated this wish, and then the US told them they had to abide by the UNCLOS.

Michael Turton said...

Ok, I see what you mean.


FOARP said...

Seems Jamestown got the wrong picture: that picture is, at least according to Google maps and Wikipedia, actually Woody Island (Yongxing Dao), which is currently occupied by the PRC.

A satellite image of Taiping Island can be seen here -

As can be seen from the map, the ROC never constructed a "jet base" on Taiping island, but only a rough airstrip suitable for use by Hercules transports.

Michael Turton said...

Thanks, FOARP! Good spot.


yankdownunder said...

"...which led to an agreement to jointly exploit the Chunxiao Field nearby,..."

But only China is exploiting this field. The agreement is worthless.

The US has not and will not support
Japan in these kinds of national
interests. That is why Japan should
spend the money it gives to US to build up its army.

Anonymous said...

My history on the UN is a little rusty but I know the US is a founding member if not THE founder of the UN, and has was instrumental in the creation of a lot of the international laws and regulations that are in place. Such as the UNCLOS which is being abused to explain away territorial expansionism under the guise of "historical" ownership of a dynasty 300 years ago.

If Obama goes for a second term and is elected I hope that he or even his successor will have the courage the wisdom and the nerve to put the American international policy back into order. Interfere in the disputes that are worth interfering in and get the H### out places that have nothing to do with anything.

Just imagine how much resolution could have come about in the last 10 years if half the efforts of the "war on terror" had been put into international disputes, such as this one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for catching the mislabeled image on the Jamestown article. A correct image of the Taiping Island (太平島) airstrip has now been posted.

FOARP said...

Sorry to be a pest about this, but I think the island pictured on the Jamestown website still doesn't look quite like Taiping Island. Google maps as well as other sources (such as the map shown here: ) all show an island which lies from west-southwest to east-northeast, with a jetty in the south-west corner, and without any internal lagoon.

Instead, the island in your new picture appears to be one of the Pratas Islands ( )