Sunday, February 3, 2013

China's Vision of the South China Sea (And Why You Should Care...)

     The South China Sea is an area of the world that many observers see as a likely flash point for major conflict in the 21st Century.  Within this geographic area are small islands, reefs, and patches of sand.  Many of these disputed parcels of territory are so small in size that they disappear under the sea on a daily basis when the high tides rush to their shores. While the territory in dispute is often shown on the front of East Asian newspapers (perhaps because land itself can be portrayed as a tangible image that can be obtained), it is the potential of untapped resources beneath these islands and shoals that are the real prize that the claimant states desire, as well as scoring political points back home with their respective citizens.
Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, whose ownership is disputed by China, Taiwan, and the Philippines

     While Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, and even Cambodia have pushed territorial claims in the area to varying degrees, it is China's claims that tend to pose the greatest risk to regional, and even global stability for a number of reasons.   China is not alone in its increasingly aggressive methods of asserting its claims in  recent months, yet  the methods in which it presses its claims are widely viewed as irresponsible and fraught with risk of escalated conflict.  Additionally, Beijing's long-term  view of what a conflict-free South China Sea would look like runs directly counter to not only American interests, but to most other states in the world as well.

       China, like all of the other claimant states, have interest in the vast potential resources that could lie beneath many of the reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, additionally nearly 90% of all its imports and exports are transported in shipping lanes within the disputed region.  The PRC government would be remiss if it did not look out for its economic interests, as well as ways to continue to fuel its domestic consumption in order to keep its economy growing at a healthy clip.  It is China's disheveled use of force in the region, however, that is seen by analysts  as conduct unbecoming a state that wishes others to see it as a responsible actor in the South China Sea.  The primary problem in China's naval  power projection in the region is that Beijing has allowed its regional governments and subbranches of the Chinese Communist Party to have far too much autonomy in this sensitive regional dispute.  China has thus far allowed  the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to "stay above the fray" in terms of sending its vessels into close contact with foreign vessels in the disputed territories.  In exchange it has permitted over ten government agencies to come into contact with such vessels.

PRC Maritime Police during a counter-terrorism exercise
     The Maritime Police, Border Control Department (BCD), Maritime Safety Administration (MSA), State Oceanographic Administration (SOA), Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC), and the Coast Guard have all been involved with various levels of contact of foreign vessels, which drastically increases the chances of misunderstanding and conflict without a clear chain of command coming from Beijing.  China has also given some of its southern provinces a staggering amount of authority in sending vessels to the disputed region.  In November, Hainan Province was given permission to intercept foreign vessels that operate "illegally" in the island's waters, which in China's eyes include much of the South China Sea.  Allowing bureaucratic branches and regional provinces within China to operate  with its own interests in mind is a dangerous precedent for an aspiring global power to be playing, and it is exactly what is taking place within Chinese foreign policy regarding the South China Sea at the present time.

     China has also taken a drastically different view from the international norms in the case of maritime boundaries and right of passage.  According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), states have territorial water rights that extend to 12 nautical miles, and an additional  contiguous zone of 12 nautical miles in which states have custom, tax, immigration, and pollution enforcement authority.  Beyond this range is a state's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends for 200 nautical miles, and a state holds sole rights over the area's natural resource exploration and exploitation.

     It is the opinion of Beijing that EEZ rights extend far beyond what has been ratified by the 162 signatories of UNCLOS (a treaty that the United States generally abides by, but has yet to ratify), in claiming that the 200 mile nautical zone also allows for a state to deny right of passage to military vessels on both water and air.  If other countries were to follow suit with this mode of thinking, it could severely hinder the ability of military vessels to conduct operations what has been open sea territory.  Additionally,   if the Chinese interpretation were to be followed,  response times for vessels and aircraft that would be called to respond to humanitarian missions in the cases of natural disaster, or a political crisis, could be severely lengthened.  What should be troubling for not only American interests, but for the majority of states is that China is attempting to garner international support for this idea.  In 2011, Thailand became the most recent country to adhere to this mode of thinking, stating that its understanding of the freedom of navigation does not include the right of foreign navies to undertake military exercises within another country's EEZ. In addition to Thailand, Kenya, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia, North Korea, and other states  have all expressed some degree of support for anti-access maritime norms as a matter of state policy. If the Chinese model of EEZ interpretation were to be enforced by Beijing, and the 23 other states it has slanted to its point of view, 38% of the world's ocean would become much more hostile to international military hardware, as well as raising the possibility of cargo shipping bans during times of hostility, which could potentially devastate the global economy on short notice.

     It is unlikely that the territorial disputes in the region will be solved in the near future.  Many of the governments involved have invested heavy amounts of political capital among their citizens in the form of nationalistic currency to allow for concession of claims.  The most responsible path for this region to take would be to pressure China to reign in its multiple state actors in this region, and to call for more responsible leadership from Beijing.  The newly minted CCP Standing Committee, led by Xi Jinping,  could also lessen the chance for conflict by placing more authority in its Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), a branch of government that has traditionally been weak in the PRC,  to coordinate actions in the region, and lessen the chances of conflict escalation.  The Association of Southeast Asian  Nations (ASEAN), would also be wise to put aside territorial disputes, and refute the Chinese notion of EEZ interpretation in the form of a united front.  This is a tall task, however, as China has successfully used its economic leverage against some member states (ie. Cambodia) in order to lower the chances of a unified front against it regarding maritime law and territorial claims. Finally, the United States can increase its diplomatic  visibility in the region, by continuing to support the UNCLOS interpretation of maritime navigation, as well as increasing its military presence in the region.  An American presence in the region is vital for maintaining the continued  period of prosperity and security that East Asia has known and grown with since the end of the Second World War. Surely such conditions  should trump claims over small shoals and rocks.....shouldn't it?


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