Mixed views of China's assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea

China's recent warning to its South East Asian neighbours of “due consequences” if its interests in the South China Sea are disturbed attracted a wide variety of comment and interpretation, much of which continues to be generated by the vagueness of the Chinese territorial gambit.

Both the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC) claim almost the entire South China Sea as their own - within a nine-dotted line which overlaps with virtually every other country in the region. Eight of the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have a claim in the sea.

The nine-dotted line was originally an "eleven-dotted-line" drawn up by the ROC's Kuomintang Party (KMT) government in 1947. After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over mainland China in 1949, the PRC, the state it created, adopted the map and revised it to nine dots. However neither the PRC nor the ROC have shown how the line would be joined if it was continuous.

The presumed extent of the area claimed by the Chinese has been officially protested by the key ASEAN members, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

Kim R. Holmes, a former Assistant Secretary of State of the United States of America and a Vice President at the Heritage Foundation, warns that while the PRC's sovereign claim to virtually all of the South China Sea is "not new", it is now "exploiting the Law of the Sea Treaty to buttress its claims in all its 'near seas'. Employing idiosyncratic interpretations of the treaty, to which the US is not a party, it argues that US naval vessels and auxiliary ships should be restricted when operating in what it considers its 'exclusive economic zone'.”

His colleague, Dean Cheng, notes that the PRC's navy is adapting its strategy to securing waters from Japan’s home islands, along the Ryukyus chain, through Taiwan and the Philippines and to the Strait of Malacca, including the South China Sea.

"To control this vast expanse," Mr Holmes told the Washington Times, "China would need to hold the US Navy at arm’s length, denying our ships access to international waters. Should China succeed in this, it would make it harder for the US Navy and other forces to come to the aid of Taiwan and our allies Japan and the Philippines if China attacks."

Tadae Takubo, Professor Emeritus at Kyorin Univeristy in Tokyo, agrees that the PRC is progressing "steadily towards making the ocean territory its own 'inland sea' and believes that neither Japan nor the United States "has sufficiently come to grips with the seriousness of the Chinese plot” to split the resolution of the ASEAN members to seek a multilateral soultion to the overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

He also notes that the military weakness of the Philippines has caused it to implore the USA "to declare that it will apply the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty to the South China Sea, claiming that it has not abrogated the treaty despite the departure of the US forces [from Subic Bay in 1992].”

Commented the journal, Renaissance Japan: "The US has accommodated the request. It can be said that, for the first time, it has made clear its stance regarding the situation in the South China Sea – that there will be US military involvement in case of an emergency."

Jens Kastner, a Taipei-based journalist and analyst, adds that the idea of the South China Sea becoming a "starting point for cross-Strait military cooperation" between the PRC and ROC is "gaining traction" on Taiwan.

"Since last year' he writes in World Politics Review, "the People's Liberation Army Academy has repeatedly called for cooperation with Taiwan in protecting 'common ancestral rights" in the region's disputed waters ... From a Chinese perspective, as long it is firmly placed under the 'one China principle', the offer of such cooperation is plausible, and not only because the territorial claims made by Beijing and Taipei are all but identical. With confidence growing on the Chinese side that unification will eventually come about, for Beijing, Taipei is a useful placeholder for the Dongsha/Pratas Islands and Taiping/Ibu Ata Island, both presently controlled by the Taiwanese.

"A KMT think tank has already proposed cross-Strait cooperation on energy in the South China Sea, as well as the joint use of Taiwan's facilities on Taiping. Moreover, in a book recently jointly published by scholars belonging to China's Foreign Ministry-affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies and Taiwan's National Chengchi University, both sides strongly argued for joint efforts to safeguard sovereignty over disputed territories," he says.

He concludes: "In the event the Ma [KMT] administration continues to lead Taiwan after the election in 2012, and in case it indeed aims at implementing military cooperation with China in the disputed waters, it could exploit future incidents to create a climate in which public opinion not only tolerates the idea of working with China on the issue but begins welcoming it.

"Should joint patrolling of the waters around Dongsha and Taiping then take place - with either the PLA Navy or China's paramilitary research ship fleet on one side and the Taiwan Navy or Taiwan Coast Guard on the other - it would facilitate the implementation of further military confidence-building measures in the Taiwan Strait and move both sides that much closer to the signing of a peace agreement."

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