The South China Sea

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Possession, they say, is nine-tenths of the law. There is little doubt who possesses a series of reefs and rocks in the South China Sea but Beijing’s occupation, expansion and militarization of these locations remains hotly disputed by other countries. Moreover, an international court in The Hague has ruled that China has no historic claims to these places.

Indeed in the summer of 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague completely rejected what is shown on Chinese maps as the “Nine-Dash Line” which covers 85 percent of the South China Sea. A glance at the map demonstrates the weakness of Beijing’s argument. It is arguable that the Paracel Islands, south of the Chinese island of Hainan, have some geographic relation with the Chinese mainland, except that they have long been seen as part of Vietnamese territory. It was attacks in 2011 by heavily-armed Chinese “fishermen” on Vietnamese fishing boats that was one of the earliest manifestations of Beijing’s maritime claims.

Nevertheless, The Hague court found no virtue in China’s ownership assertion over the Paracels. The Spratly Islands, the second major territory located to the southeast of the “Nine-Dash Line,” are clearly shared geographically between the Philippines, Brunei and perhaps Malaysia. The third main disputed location, the Scarborough Shoal, to the west of the northern Philippines island of Luzon, is so obviously part of Filipino territory that it seems absurd to claim otherwise.

Yet with each of these disputed pieces of rock and reef, the Chinese have been using massive land reclamation to build up the sites so that military bases with airports, radar facilities and missiles can be established. A report just issued by Beijing comments gnomically that it has “reasonably” expanded these bases during the last 12 months. The Chinese note that the facilities may be military but they can also provide important international assistance such as search and rescue. However, there are no reports of any search and rescue efforts from these bases following the recent devastating Luzon flooding.

The Beijing document came as a surprise to some Western media commentators, whose focus has increasingly been on the nuclear threat from North Korea. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have slipped off the news agenda. And there appears to have been a similar lack of focus from the Trump White House. Although US warships continue to sail past close to the Chinese bases, asserting what the navy insists is the international status of the waters, rather disregarding the claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, this is proving to be an increasingly hollow demonstration.

The Chinese are ensconced on these rocks and reefs and are busy turning them into potent projections of their military power. Given their complete rejection of The Hague Tribunal ruling, they are not going to be negotiated off these places. And given Beijing’s burgeoning military power, not least its fast-growing navy, there is no way that they are going to be forced off, by anyone.

Nevertheless, this issue remains important. The Trump administration’s Asian team is still notoriously short of appointees. The president may have China trade disputes along with North Korea more in his Asian sights but he would surely be wrong to imagine that Beijing’s dubious maritime claims do not constitute a potentially dangerous flashpoint with serious worldwide implications for peace and stability.


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