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South China Sea


Despite many Chinese diplomatic assurances to the contrary, Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea is an attempt to re-establish traditional Chinese hegemony in the region. China's strategy is taking concrete actions to solidify its claims in the South China Sea, and Chinese officials have underscored such perception.

China has asserted its claims for the South China Sea's rich mineral, oil and fishing grounds by increasing patrols and escorts for its fishing fleets. The ships excursions regularly raise regional tensions. ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Brunei in April 2013 agreed to pursue dialogue with China on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. ASEAN wants a legally binding agreement to discourage such aggressive moves. It would replace a ten-year pledge by the claimants not to cause conflict, known as the Declaration of Conduct.

In February 2014 the United States for the first time explicitly rejected the U-shaped, nine-dash line that China uses to assert sovereignty over nearly the whole South China Sea, experts say, strengthening the position of rival claimants and setting the stage for what could be an international legal showdown with Beijing. Washington had always said that it takes no position on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei and opposes any use of force to resolve such issues.

But on 10 February 2014 US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel in effect ended the ambiguity last week when he testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, experts say. Russel said that under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea "must be derived from land features" and that any use of the nine-dash line by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land areas "would be inconsistent with international law."

The international community, he said, would welcome China to clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea. "I think it is imperative that we be clear about what we mean when the United States says that we take no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features" in the region, Russel said.

Unlike other countries, Beijing's claim to up to about 90 percent of the South China Sea is not based on claims to particular islands or other features but on a historical map China officially submitted to the United Nations in 2009. The map contains a nine-dash line forming a U-shape down the east coast of Vietnam to just north of Indonesia and then continuing northwards up the west coast of the Philippines. The nine-dash line has been considered by many experts as incompatible with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which rejects historically based claims.

Jeffrey Bader, once U.S. President Barack Obama's chief advisor on China, referred to Russel's testimony and said that "for the first time, the United States government has come out publicly with an explicit statement that the so-called 'nine-dash line' ... is contrary to international law.... By explicitly rejecting the nine-dash line, Assistant Secretary Russel and the administration have drawn our own line in the right place," Bader, now a senior expert at Washington-based Brookings Institution, said in a report. Washington made clear that its objection is a "principled one, based on international law, not a mere rejection of a claim simply because it is Chinas," he said.

Russel's statement was immediately dismissed by Beijing, which has grown increasingly aggressive in asserting its territorial claims in the region, fueling tensions in waters important for fishing, shipping, and oil exploration."Some U.S. officials make groundless accusations against China," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. The nine-dash line, he said, was established way back in 1948, a year before the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, and had been supported by successive Chinese governments.

Vietnam called on the United States to take a larger role in protecting the peace and settling conflicts in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. A foreign ministry spokesman in Hanoi, Le Hai Binh, said 06 June 2014, "We hope that the U.S. will have a stronger voice and make further practical acts to contribute to protecting maritime safety and security in the region and resolving the disputes there in accordance with international law. The Vietnamese call for more US involvement came as Vietnamese ships continued to clash with Chinese ships near a controversial oil rig that Beijing placed in disputed waters in May 2014. According to Vietnamese officials, Chinese ships had sunk one of its ships and damaged 24 others, as well as injured 12 members of its fisheries surveillance force. But China accuses Vietnamese ships of being the aggressors, saying they had rammed Chinese ships 120 times since early May.

The standoff over a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam tested the Obama administration's pivot to Asia of military and diplomatic assets. The standoff is part of China's push back against a larger US presence in the Pacific. Thousands of Chinese workers were evacuated from Vietnam by ship following anti-China rioting in mid-May 2014 that left two people dead and more than 140 injured.

The week of violence erupted after the state-run China energy company CNOOC towed a deep water oil rig in April 2014 to waters near the Paracel Islands claimed to be in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The move of the rig was timed with President Barack Obama's four-nation Asia trip 23-29 April 2014. Vietnam said China increased the number of vessels at the area to 130 vessels, including four navy ships. Chinese and Vietnamese ships attacked each other with water cannons, raising fears of an all-out military clash.

In mid-july 2014 China removed an exploratory rig from disputed waters in the South China Sea, two months after its placement near the Paracel Islands sparked diplomatic tensions with Vietnam. After finding signs of oil and gas off the coast of the archipelago claimed by both countries, the rig is being towed to the Chinese island of Hainan a month ahead of the announced end-date for drilling.

The Philippines said 15 May 2014 China was developing land on a disputed reef in the hotly contested Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. A spokesman for the Department of National Defense confirmed that early this year, military surveillance found China involved in earth-moving activities in the area of Johnson South Reef. The reef, called Chigua by China and Mabini by the Philippines, is more than 300 kilometers west of Palawan province in the Philippines.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said 04 June 2014 that Beijing had until December 15th to submit arguments to the arbitral panel handling the Philippines case against China. But in a statement the court said it received a note from China stating it does not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines.

As of 01 January 2014 China's Hainan province required all foreign fishing vessels to ask permission to enter more than half of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea. The new regulations adopted by China's Hainan Province on implementing the country's fishing law replaced the previous regulations that went into effect in 1993.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said there was nothing unusual about the new restrictions. "As a maritime nation it is normal and routine for China to make rules to regulate the conservation and management of maritime biological resources," said Hua. "According to international laws, universal practice and domestic laws, the Chinese government bears the right and obligation to manage the biological and non-biological resources on relevant islands, reefs and in relevant waters.... If someone asserts that the technical amendments on a provincial fishing regulation which has been implemented for years will pose a threat to regional peace and stability, it's either due to lack of common sense or out of hidden intent".

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki says the new restrictions run counter to efforts to resolve the disputes multilaterally. "The passing of these restrictions on other countries' fishing activities in disputed portions of the South China Sea is a provocative and potentially dangerous act," said Psaki. "China has not offered any explanation or basis under international law for these extensive maritime claims".

Vietnamese fishermen say they will ignore the new regulations. Vo Van Trac, vice chairman of the Vietnamese Association of Fishery, told VOA's Vietnamese service that they will not be kept out of waters claimed by Hanoi. "The new rules will obviously have an impact on Vietnamese fishermen, who will keep fishing in areas of the South China Sea that are within Vietnamese sovereignty".

Deng Xiaoping said "since we can't solve the South China Sea issue, we can leave it to the next generation which will be smarter." It is impossible to resolve the disputes over the South China Sea to the mutual benefit of all. Hypothetically, the claims of other littoral states could be reconciled by sectoral extensions of the Exclusive Economic Zones [as was done in the Gulf of Guinea]. China's claims cannot be so reconciled, since China claims vritually the entire South China Sea, which it views as internal waters.

China claims most of the South China Sea as either territorial water or Exclusive Economic Zone. China's claims cannot be reconciled with the claims of other states in the South China Sea area. The other states have conflicting claims that can be harmonized, the way there were compromises among the conflicting claims for the Gulf of Guinea in Africa. In the South China Sea, each of the littoral states claims areas that are immediately contiguous to their territorial seas, and it would be possible to "split the difference" on competing claims. But China claims the entirety of the South China Sea, so there is no possibility of compromise with China's position, since it is all or nothing.

In July 1977, when Deng Xiaoping emerged as China's leader following the death of Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese foreign minister, Huang Hua, confirmed that China's claim to the South China Sea was "non-negotiable" in the strongest terms. At the same time he commented: "The territory of China reaches as far south as the James Shoals, near Malaysia's Borneo territory... I remember that while I was still a schoolboy, I read about those islands in the geography books. At that time, I never heard anyone say those islands were not China's... The Vietnamese claim that the islands belong to them. Let them talk that way. They have repeatedly asked us to negotiate with them on the issue; we have always declined to do so... As to the ownership of the islands, there are historical documents that can be verified. There is no need for negotiations since they originally belonged to China.... In this respect Taiwan's attitude is all right. At least they have some patriotism and would not sell out the islands..."

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) coastal states have the right to establish sovereignty over adjacent waters out to a maximum of 12 nautical miles from the nation's coastline, including the coastline of offshore islands. These enclosed waters are known as the coastal state's territorial sea.

During the negotiations of the text of the 1982 UNCLOS military activities in the EEZ were a controversial issue. Some coastal States such as Bangladesh, Brazil, Cape Verde, Malaysia, Pakistan and Uruguay contended that other States cannot carry out military exercises or maneuvers in or over their EEZ without their consent. In June 1998, the PRC passed the "Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Act." This Act created an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with 200 nautical mile limits from its coastal baseline, and claimed the right, inter alia, to broadly undefined powers to enforce laws in the EEZ, "including security laws and regulations." Based on the Act, the PRC does not recognize the airspace above its EEZ as "international airspace" and has interfered with and protested US reconnaissance flights over its EEZ. China takes the position that all maritime data collection activities, including military intelligence and hydrographic collection activities, fall within the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] provisions for marine scientific research and therefore require coastal-state consent before they could be carried out in the two-hundred-nautical-mile EEZ.

The US has protested this sovereignty claim as a violation of international law numerous times since this law was passed. The US Government has long conducted a vigorous freedom of navigation program through which it has asserted its navigational rights in the face of what it has regarded as excessive claims by coastal states of jurisdiction over ocean space or international passages. When remonstrations and protestations are unavailing, elements of US military forces may sail into or fly over disputed regions for the purpose of demonstrating their right and determination to continue to do so.

ASEAN countries are outward-looking, especially in term of protecting their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). The convergence of interests in conflict areas such as the Spratly Islands affects the relationship among Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei with each claiming parts of the Spratlys. While armed conflicts among the countries of ASEAN overthe Spratly issue may be a remote possibility, it hascompounded historic frictions over unresolved territorial conflicts.

This will continue to be one of the driving force behind arms acquisition which is clearly demonstrated by the expansion of the naval and air forces of Malaysia. All the other ASEAN countries - except for Brunei - have expanded their naval and air arms to safeguard their maritime interests.

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