Explainer: why is the South China Sea such a hotly contested region?



Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erica Bechard/US Navy/AP

Greg Austin, UNSW

In the past week, both the US and Australia rejected large parts of China’s extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea, as well as territorial claims by any state to undersea reefs.

More worryingly, the US is also pressuring Australia to join its freedom of navigation exercises in the sea — a move likely to further anger China.

As tensions in the South China Sea mount, it’s important to understand how this dispute began and what international law says about freedom of navigation and competing maritime claims in the waters.




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Creeping militarisation of the sea

In 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted and signed, formalising extended maritime resource claims in international law. At this time, no fewer than six governments had laid claim to the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

Since then, there has been a creeping militarisation of the waters by nations seeking to secure extended maritime resource zones.

In 2009, Vietnam began reclaiming land around some of the 48 small islands it had occupied since the 1970s. In response, China began its much larger reclamations on submerged features it first began to occupy in the 1980s.

Bu 2016, these reclamations had resulted in three military-grade, mid-ocean airfields that sent shockwaves around the world, provoked in part by China breaking its own pledge not to militarise the islands.

An aerial view of the Subi reef, one of the tiny islands being claimed by China in the disputed South China Sea.
FRANCIS R. MALASIG/EPA

What is China’s claim based on

The South China Sea is a vast area measuring 3.6 million square kilometres, more than double the size of the Gulf of Mexico. It takes a modern warship just over three days to sail at top speed of 30 knots from its northern edge at Taiwan to the southern edge at the Strait of Malacca.

China’s claim to the sea is based both on the Law of the Sea Convention and its so-called “nine-dash” line. This line extends for 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland, encompassing over half of the sea.

In a historic decision in 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled against part of China’s claims to the sea in a case brought by the Philippines. China rejected the authority of the tribunal and its finding in the case.

In its ruling, the tribunal considered the South China Sea to be a “semi-enclosed sea” as defined by the Law of the Sea Convention — a body of water tightly or largely contained by land features.

This status carries with it the expectation that coastal states should cooperate on everything from conservation issues to commercial exploitation. This concept is important: it means that by definition, the South China Sea is a shared maritime space.

How does international law factor in?

Under the Law of the Sea Convention, all states have a right to 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone” to exploit the resources of the sea and seabed, as measured from their land territories. Where these zones overlap, countries are obliged to negotiate with other claimants.

This has yet to happen in the South China Sea, which is the source of many of the current tensions. There are three great challenges to this.

The first is the countries claiming parts of the South China Sea cannot agree who owns the Paracel and Spratly islands.

China asserts its sovereignty based on highly disputable evidence from ancient times, as well as more recent claims from 1902-39. Japan occupied the islands during the second world war and later recognised the claim of the Republic of China (now Taiwan) in a 1952 peace treaty.

Rival claimants to the islands deny the validity of this evidence. Vietnam has equally credible evidence from the period before and during the second world war.

Then there is the broader question of China’s larger claim to the waters within the u-shaped “nine-dash” line. This line, which skirts the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Vietnam, was first drawn by the Nationalist government of China in 1947. The claim had no basis in international law — then, or now.




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A second challenge is one of the actors in this conflict is Taiwan, which has been in dispute with China over sovereignty issues since 1949.

This dispute has meant Taiwan is not formally recognised as a state by most countries and is therefore not a signatory to the Law of the Sea Convention, nor legally entitled to claim territory. But Taiwan occupies one of the islands.

Third, there is a debate in international law about the type of land territory that can generate rights to an exclusive economic zone. The Law of the Sea Convention mandates the land must be able to sustain human habitation. And in 2016, the international tribunal in The Hague found no islands in the Spratly group met this criterion.

This was a major blow to China’s claims to resource jurisdiction all the way to the southern limits of the South China Sea.

Competing views on freedom of navigation

While the convention settled most international laws governing the sea, it left unresolved some issues related to military activities, especially “innocent passage” by warships in territorial seas.

Under the Law of the Sea Convention, a foreign warship can pass within the 12 nautical miles of another state as long as it takes a direct route and doesn’t conduct military operations.

But states disagree on what constitutes innocent passage. Maritime powers like the US, UK and Australia routinely conduct freedom of navigation operations (or FONOPs) to challenge what Washington calls

attempts by coastal states to unlawfully restrict access to the
seas.

The US has angered China by carrying out FONOPs within 12 nautical miles of the islands it claims in the South China Sea. These operations are not designed to challenge China’s claims to islands or resource zones. Rather, the purpose is to assert US rights to freedom of navigation.

China opposes the transits for several reasons, including its assertion that naval ships should not “operate” in other countries’ exclusive economic zones.




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Beijing, however, ignores the contradiction between this position and its own activities in the sea, where its naval ships regularly operate in the claimed EEZs of other states.

For their part, the smaller states of the South China Sea are ambivalent about the dispute. They are certainly opposed to what they see as bullying from China on excessive maritime claims and would like to deny all its island claims.

But they are also not keen on seeing the US go too far in its policy of intensifying military confrontation with China.

The Philippines has been among the more vocal countries against Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.
Bullit Marquez/AP

Will Australia draw closer to the US position?

Australia’s statement on the South China Sea last week was its strongest rejection yet of China’s claims to the waters.

It did not represent a new position on the legal issues, but marked a fresh determination to confront China over its unreasonable claims and its bullying behaviour in the maritime disputes.

Australia has not been keen on following the high-profile freedom of navigation operations of the US — concerned it might provoke a response from China — but that position may be about to change.The Conversation

Greg Austin, Professor UNSW Canberra Cyber, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Naval exercises in South China Sea add to growing fractiousness between US and China



AAP/EPA/US Navy handout

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

The deployment of three US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to the South China Sea have further tested strained relations between China and the United States.

The US naval exercises represent an enormous aggregation of firepower. Adding to tensions, the US deployment coincides with Chinese war games in the same vicinity.

These waters are becoming congested naval space.

This is the first time since 2017 that America has deployed three carrier battle groups into contested waters of the South China Sea and its environs. You would have to go back a further ten years for another such display of raw American naval power in the Asia-Pacific.




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In 2017, the US sent a three-carrier force into the region to exert pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea to cease provocative missile tests and the further development of its nuclear capability.

On this occasion, it is China that is being reminded of American capacity to assert itself in what has become known as the Indo-Pacific. This describes a vast swathe that laps at China’s borders from India in the west to Japan in the north-east.

Washington seems bent on conveying a message. However, it is not clear that China is in a mood to heed such messages in an atmosphere of escalating rhetoric.

In a response to the American naval exercises, Beijing’s official English-language mouthpiece, The Global Times, accused Washington of “attempting to show off its military capability, threaten China and enforce its hegemonic policies”.

The newspaper quoted Beijing “analysts” as saying:

The South China Sea is fully within the grasp of the People’s Liberation Army, and any US aircraft carrier movements in the region is solely at the pleasure of the PLA.

This is not true, of course. But the fact such sentiments are emanating from Beijing’s security establishment is confronting, to say the least. When it comes to big-power rivalry, talk might be cheap, but words matter.

In China’s armoury, propaganda is a weapon of influence.

Perhaps the most interesting component of the Global Times assault on US regional “hegemonistic” ambitions is its characterisation of American meddling as that of a “non-regional country that lies tens of thousands of miles away”.

Leaving aside the usual propaganda from Beijing, these sorts of observations represent a continuing escalation in Chinese rhetoric and cannot simply be dismissed as more of the same.

China’s own characterisation of the South China Sea as a “Chinese lake”, in defiance of multiple territorial claims and counter-claims from its neighbours, represents a noose around the region’s neck.

This begs the question whether a regional arms race is under way and likely to intensify. Australia’s own announcement of increased defence expenditures on such items as long-range anti-ship missiles attests to concerns about China’s growing assertiveness.

Canberra’s commitment to lift defence spending above the 2% of GDP benchmark and equip itself with greater offensive capabilities represents a direct response to a perceived China threat.

In that regard, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, in which he described the Indo-Pacific as the “epicentre of rising strategic competition”, crosses a red line in Australian strategic thinking.

Morrison added “the risk of miscalculation and even conflict is heightening”.

This is indisputable.

The prime minister’s recent comments crossed a red line in strategic thinking.
AAP/Lukas Coch

As a snapshot of the region, the 11-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) increased military spending between 2009 and 2018 by 33% in real terms, according to the authoritative Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI).

This was significantly more than growth in spending in other regions. It’s directly attributable to concerns about a deteriorating security environment. Australia’s planned acquisition of long-range anti-ship missiles is part of a wider regional trend.

More weapons with greater range increase the risk of an incident. This may come about by accident but be built up into something much bigger – a shooting war or, more likely, a nasty memory that will haunt international relations for many years and lead to yet more militarisation.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates China’s defence budget in 2020 stands at US$261 billion. This compares with the US defence budget in 2019 of US$717 billion.

In percentage terms, increases in China’s spending outstripped that of its significant neighbours. This includes India, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

A lot more spending is on the way. By 2035, half the world’s submarine fleet will be deployed in the Indo-Pacific, according to Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper.

At the same time, China is pressing ahead with its own aircraft carrier fleet. It has two: one purchased off the shelf from Ukraine; the other built in China. The keel has been laid for a third at a Shanghai shipyard.

This is serious stuff. China is a nuclear state.

All this needs to be kept in mind as ill-tempered exchanges between Washington and Beijing over China’s responsibility for a global health pandemic, trade tensions, human rights abuses, bullying of Hong Kong, border skirmishes with India and increased pressure on Taiwan weigh on an increasingly strained relationship.

Arguably, tensions between the US and China are worse now than in 1989, when a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters ruptured relations. The difference between then and now is that China has a vastly larger economy and is an emerging superpower with a military to match its ambitions.

In 1989, China’s economy on a purchasing power parity basis was a fraction of the size it is today. Its contribution to world trade had not yet become supercharged.

China-US relations are at their lowest ebb since the pro-democracy uprising of 1989.
AAP/Reuters/Siu Chiu

What also is noteworthy is that, unlike 1989, China’s armed forces are no longer almost exclusively land-based. Chinese naval capabilities have progressed in leaps and bounds, along with its electronic warfare capabilities.

Hanging over a potentially worsening security environment, certainly an ill-tempered relationship between Beijing and the West, is widespread uneasiness over a deterioration in American global leadership.

In a presidential election year in which a wounded president is fighting for his political survival, risks of a miscalculation are real.

In other words, the security and political environment is treacherous at a moment when China itself feels under siege. As a consequence, China is lashing out at its perceived detractors, real or imagined.

This includes Australia, which has found itself under an almost daily barrage of Chinese invective following Morrison’s clumsy attempts to spearhead an independent inquiry into China’s responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic.




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Typical of this sort of invective is the following, courtesy of the Global Times:

Australia is only a follower of the US, and its capability in the South China Sea will be limited.

The bloody Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters might be regarded as the low point in Beijing’s post-Mao Zedong relationship with the West, but it could be argued there is now a more worrying set of circumstances.

No country in the Indo-Pacific, with the possible exception of North Korea, can feel comfortable about China’s growing assertiveness. So it is tempting to say something will most likely give.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Despite strong words, the US has few options left to reverse China’s gains in the South China Sea


Adam Ni, Australian National University

At a top regional security forum on Saturday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said China’s recent militarisation efforts in the disputed South China Sea were intended to intimidate and coerce regional countries.

Mattis told the Shangri-La Dialogue that China’s actions stood in “stark contrast with the openness of [the US] strategy,” and warned of “much larger consequences” if China continued its current approach.

As an “initial response”, China’s navy has been disinvited by the US from the upcoming 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world’s largest international naval exercise.

It is important to understand the context of the current tensions, and the strategic stakes for both China and the US.




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In recent years, China has sought to bolster its control over the South China Sea, where a number of claimants have overlapping territorial claims with China, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.

China’s efforts have continued unabated, despite rising tensions and international protests. Just recently, China landed a long-range heavy bomber for the first time on an island in the disputed Paracels, and deployed anti-ship and anti-air missile systems to its outposts in the Spratly Islands.

China’s air force has also stepped up its drills and patrols in the skies over the South China Sea.

While China is not the only claimant militarising the disputed region, no one else comes remotely close to the ambition, scale and speed of China’s efforts.

China’s strategy

The South China Sea has long been coveted by China (and others) due to its strategic importance for trade and military power, as well as its abundant resources. According to one estimate, US$3.4 trillion in trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016, representing 21% of the global total.

China’s goal in the South China Sea can be summarised with one word: control.

In order to achieve this, China is undertaking a coordinated, long-term effort to assert its dominance in the region, including the building of artificial islands, civil and military infrastructure, and the deployment of military ships and aircraft to the region.




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While politicians of other countries such as the US, Philippines and Australia espouse fiery rhetoric to protest China’s actions, Beijing is focusing on actively transforming the physical and power geography of the South China Sea.

In fact, according to the new commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, China’s efforts have been so successful that it “is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US”.

America’s declining relevance

China’s efforts are hard to counter because it has employed an incremental approach to cementing its control in the South China Sea. None of its actions would individually justify a US military response that could escalate to war. In any case, the human and economic cost of such a conflict would be immense.

The inability of the US to respond effectively to China’s moves has eroded its credibility in the region. It has also fed a narrative that the US is not “here to stay” in Asia. If the US is serious about countering China, then Mattis’ rhetoric must be followed by action.

First, the US should clearly articulate its red lines to China and others on the kinds of activities that are unacceptable in the South China Sea. Then it must be willing to enforce such red lines, while being mindful of the risks.

Second, the US needs to renew its efforts to cooperate with allies in the region to build capacity and demonstrate a coordinated commitment to stand in the face of China’s challenge.

Third, the US needs to deploy military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region, such as advanced missile systems, which would reduce the military advantages gained by China through the militarisation of the South China Sea features.

Long-term consequences

China’s tightening control over the South China Sea is worrying for a number of regional countries. For many, the shipping routes that run through the South China Sea are the bloodlines of their economies.

Moreover, the shifting balance of power will enable Beijing to settle its territorial disputes in the region for good. Without a doubt, China is willing to use its new-found power to change the status quo in its favour, even at the expense of its weaker neighbours.

Control of the South China Sea also allows Beijing to better project its military power across South-East Asia, the western Pacific and parts of Oceania. This would make it more costly for the US and its allies to take action against China, for example, in scenarios involving Taiwan.

On a higher level, China’s assertive approach to the South China Sea demonstrates Beijing’s increasing confidence and its willingness to flaunt international norms that it considers inconvenient or contrary to its interests.

There is little doubt China is becoming the new dominant power in Asia. Its rise has benefited millions in the region and should be welcomed. But we should also be wary of Beijing’s approach to territorial disputes and grievances if it employs military and economic intimidation and coercion.




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If we want to live in a “world where big fish neither eat nor intimidate the small”, then there must be consequences for countries, including China, when they flaunt international norms and seek to settle disagreements with force.

It may be too late to turn the tide in the South China Sea and reverse China’s gains. No one would run such a risk. But it is not too late to impose penalties on China for further destabilising the region through its actions in the South China Sea.

The ConversationThe challenge is to figure out how to do that, and what we would be willing to risk to achieve it.

Adam Ni, Researcher, Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Defence secretary warns of China's 'unprecedented' land reclamation activity in South China Sea


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The secretary of the Defence department, Dennis Richardson, has expressed Australia’s strong concern about China’s recent land reclamation in the South China Sea area.

The speed and scale of the reclamation on disputed reefs and other features raised the question of China’s intent and purpose, Richardson said in very pointed comments, noting that if it were for military purposes this would be particularly worrying.

Delivering the Blamey Oration, Richardson said that looking out over the next two decades, the relationship between the United States, China, Japan and India would provide the backdrop and centrepoint to much of what unfolded in East Asia and beyond – just as the Cold War had done in the second half of last century.

“The US-China relationship sits at the centre. And this invariably opens up the question of just where and how Australia positions itself,” Richardson said.

“Expressed in its most simple and basic terms, our relationship with China and the United States can be summarised in one simple phrase: friends with both, allies with one.”

Australia’s relationship with and interests in China were sometimes different from those of the US – as shown by the recent decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

“Obviously, the Australia-China relationship is still developing the appropriate balance of trust and confidence – in many respects a never-ending journey in international and strategic relations,” Richardson said.

“And, as has been readily acknowledged by successive Australian and Chinese leaders, differences will emerge from time to time.”

Australia was concerned about the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea over the last couple of years.

“China now has more law enforcement and Coast Guard vessels in the South China Sea than the other regional countries put together. And given the size and modernisation of China’s military, the use by China of land reclamation for military purposes would be of particular concern.”

It was legitimate to express these concerns “because tensions and potential miscalculations are not in anyone’s interest”.

Richardson also said regional changes would eventually raise questions about whether Australia’s defence needs can be met with a spending level of 2% of GDP. He foreshadowed that a changing Indonesia would require new thinking by Australia.

With few exceptions Australia’s South East Asian neighbourhood would probably become increasingly wealthier and more confident.

“For the first time we will have a neighbour – Indonesia – which will have a bigger economy than our own.

“This will require a psychological adjustment by Australia, as will an Indonesia which continues to embed democratic norms. We will need to rethink engagement strategies and expectations.”

The economic and strategic changes in South East Asia would see real growth in regional defence expenditure, Richardson said.

“This will not be directed against us, but it will mean the capability gap we have traditionally enjoyed in the wider region will significantly diminish and, in some instances, probably disappear.

“This in turn will raise questions – not now but well down the track – whether we will be able to continue to meet our defence needs with around 2% of GDP.”

In 2015-16 the defence budget will reach 1.92% of GDP. The government’s commitment is for 2% of GDP within a decade.

Richardson said the growing wealth of East Asia would not be shared across much of the other part of our neighbourhood – the South Pacific.

“Here, climate change and other constraints may present us with opposite challenges to wealth and confidence. Over time, that could lead to serious questions of labour mobility if some of the smaller South Pacific island countries are to develop sustainable economic growth.”

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan is Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

South China Sea Stand Off


The link below is to an article reporting on the South China Sea stand off and will the USA get dragged into it once the shooting starts?

For more visit:
http://bigthink.com/power-games/how-will-the-south-china-sea-disputes-be-resolved