South China Sea And East China Sea Disputes Politics Essay

During introduction the paper will draw the aspects related to South China Sea and later on East China Sea issues will be pointed out.

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The South China Sea is strategically an enormously important region. Dominance over it is claimed by states of Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. [1] While China has, over the last 20 years, made general progress towards improving relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours, growing tensions over these competing rights threaten to challenge its effectiveness. Since the military exercises performed by Chinese ships against the US ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in March 2009 in the South China Sea, situation attracted greater diplomatic and press consideration [2] . Some observers see China’s behaviour in the South China Sea as a sign of ‘assertive’ diplomacy. [3] The sovereignty disputes are more than disputes over who owns particular landscapes. They:

“involve major themes of grand strategy and territorial defence, including the protection of sea lines of communication, energy, food and environmental security. They may also be linked to rising populist nationalism. The stakes are too high for imminent resolution; the rulers of states with maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea are convinced that compromise is not in their national interest.” [4]

Actors (also states without claims and non-state actors, such as energy companies) focus not so much on dispute resolution but rather on dispute management, with the aim of preventing conflict and preserving freedom of navigation and over flight. The non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed in November 2002 by China and by 10 ASEAN member states, dedicates the parties to work towards adopting a legally binding law whilst exercising “self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes ” [5]

One must point out that the obligation to “self-restraint” has not put an end “to unannounced and potentially provocative reinforcement of already occupied islands.” [6] While diplomats on all sides points out the weaknesses of 2002 declaration, some states undertook one-sided military, bureaucratic and jurisdictional initiatives in the South China Sea, with the sole purpose of changing the political and military status quo. [7] One must say, that China’s initiatives have been particularly prominent. [8] Following the Impeccable incident, Washington has been paying increased attention to developments in the South China Sea. [9] Although careful to loose its distance regarding sovereignty disputes, the United States has more aggressively highlighted its interest in protecting the free transit of vessels, both commercial and military. [10] Such passage is vital for America’s position in Asia, for the integrity of its regional security, and for its ability to observe Chinese military developments. [11] The US desire to retain this ability to monitor Chinese military development, including the developing Chinese naval base on Hainan, and the Chinese rejection of this right, might be one of the main factors behind the rising tensions. [12] In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2009, the commander of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, argued that :

“The Impeccable incident was a troubling indicator that China, particularly in the South China Sea, is behaving in an aggressive and troublesome manner, and they’re not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behaviour or rules of the road ” [13]

Moreover, in July 2009, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held hearings on ‘Maritime disputes and sovereignty issues in East Asia’ to observe how these were

impacting on the region and US interests there. In January 2010, the new commander of the Pacific Command, Admiral Robert F. Willard, highlighted to Congress how Chinese naval patrols in the South China Sea had shown an :

‘increased willingness to confront regional nations on the high seas and within the contested island chains” [14]

In February, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held an all-day hearing on China’s activities in Southeast Asia, with experts reporting about China’s growing belligerence in the South China Sea and advising that the United States needed to engage more with the region to protect its interests, including taking a more active interest in dispute management. [15] Concerns over China’s actions in these waters continued to grow through 2010. At the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the strongest and most direct public statement of US engagement on the issue to date, declaring that the United States had :

” a national interest in open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” [16]

Calling for a “collaborative diplomatic process”, she highlighted US opposition to “the use or threat of force by any claimant”, a remark aimed primarily at China. [17]

This is clashes directly with China’s recent statement that the South China Sea is its core interest. [18] Tension was raised when the joint naval and air drills conducted by the US and South Koreaee in the Yellow Sea in July and August 2010 where conducted [19] In response, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carried out military exercises in the South

China Sea and the Yellow Sea. At the same time, there have been renewed tensions in the East China Sea. On 7 September 2010, two Japanese Coast Guard patrol ships collided with a Chinese fishing boat while they carried out “law enforcement activities” in the waters off the

Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands. [20] Chinese captain Zhan Qixiong was detained on the order of an Okinawa local court, sparking demonstrations in Beijing and diplomatic protests from China [21] On the day of the collision, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, demanded that:

“Japanese patrol boats refrain from so-called law enforcement activities in waters off the Diaoyu Islands”. [22]

The Japanese ambassador to China was summoned six times over the incident, once by Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo. The event was not resolved until China suspended diplomatic and civilian exchanges with Japan and threatened to stop rare earth exports [23]

Of course, these events may ultimately prove to be just minor indifferences in diplomatic relations. Whatever the ultimate significance, these developments raise fundamental questions about the future directionality of territorial disputes in China’s borderline seas. Particularly the importance of the disputes between China, Japan, and the ASEAN nations. The thing is that given their close geographical proximity, disputes in these regions have very different dynamics. [24] In both cases, China, as a dominant power, is an important claimant state. In the East China Sea, on the opposite side of the ocean from China, is Japan, another major regional power in East Asia. Their mutual relationship is strained due to such factors as their competition for regional leadership and the historical memories of animosity between them. [25]

So far, there has been no military conflict between them per se as a result of the territorial dispute, but political tensions have been intense. [26] In the South China Sea, China faces a group of ASEAN nations (including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) that represent a more asymmetric balance of power when compared with

the East China Sea. Given the long-standing nature of these disputes, these frameworks enable us to track the record of conflicts and the shifts in the relative power balances of the claimants, eventually leading to the conclusion that certainty and stability have improved in the South China Sea, with the converse outcomes happening in the East China Sea.

2. Core National Interest

According to Edward Wong, the Beijing-based correspondent for The New York


“In March [2010], Chinese officials told two visiting senior Obama

administration officials, Jeffrey A. Bader and James B. Steinberg, that China

would not tolerate any interference in the South China Sea, now part of

China’s “core interest” of sovereignty, said an American official involved in

China policy. It was the first time the Chinese labelled the South China Sea a

core interest, on par with Taiwan and Tibet, the official said.” [27]

There were no U.S. officials denying the NYT report. It’s is clear the Chinese are trying to distance themselves from their self-imposed policy on this one [28] . In March, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai told two senior U.S. officials that China now views its claims to the 1.3 million-square-mile sea on par with its claims to Tibet and Taiwan, an island that China says belongs to Beijing. [29]

Once the remarks were reported in public Chinese officials felt constrained about denying outright that the South China Sea was a not “core national interest” for fear of provoking a domestic backlash among Chinese nationalists. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has disclosed that at the 2nd U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing (24-25 May 2010) the Chinese stated they viewed the South China Sea as a core interest. Clinton stated in an interview:

“aˆ¦and when China first told us at a meeting of the Strategic and Economic

Dialogue that they viewed the South China Sea as a core interest, I

immediately responded and said, ‘We don”t agree with that’. So they were on

notice that if they were –

Question: Was that Dai Bingguo that said that to you?

Yes, yeah. So if they were in the process of extending their efforts to claim

and control to the detriment of international law, freedom of navigation,

maritime security, the claims of their neighbors, that was a concerning matter.

And therefore, we worked with a lot of the ASEAN countries who are directly

impacted and 12 of us raised it a the ASEAN Regional Forum last July to

make it clear that issues like that have to be resolved in accordance with the

rule of law.” [30]

Since the initial report, Chinese officials have been equivocal when questioned

whether or not the South China Sea has been raised officially to a “core interest” or

“core national interest”. For example, a correspondent who attended the Shangri-la

Dialogue in Singapore in June 2010 stated that a People’s Liberation Army

Major General told him the South China Sea :

“was not quite the same as Tibet or Taiwan”. [31]

The Chinese media frequently use the term “core interest”, particularly in the July-

August 2010 period. [32] For example, an editorial in a leading English-language paper


“China’s tolerance was sometime taken advantage of by neighbouring countries

to seize unoccupied islands and grab natural resources under China’s

sovereignty. China’s long-term strategic plan should never be taken as a weak stand. It is

clear that military clashes would bring bad results to all countries in the region

involved, but China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with

military means”. [33]

A review of Chinese academic and media commentary on this question concluded:

“While no Chinese official has spoken about what “core national interests”

means, there is a growing chorus from within the country for the People’s

Liberation Army to defend these core interests in the disputed region. Recent

news coverage has brought the term “core national interests” into the same

spotlight as “national sovereignty: and “territorial integrity” and raises the

issue of how China defines the term and what it covers.” [34]

Walter Lohman, an expert with Washington-based Heritage Foundation, determined

that :

“China’s characterization of South China Sea as a ‘core interest’aˆ¦ is just a big

misunderstanding or in the process of being walked back by the Chinese”. [35]

As a result of the foregoing, Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea has generated special concerns. [36] In March 2010, U.S. media reported that Chinese officials told senior State Department envoys that the South China Sea had been elevated to a ‘core

interest’ along with Taiwan and Tibet and China would not tolerate any interference in the South China Sea. [37] Chinese officials repeated this assertion in private conversations with foreign diplomats and the term ‘core interest’ was used in Chinese media reports. These statements generated a new level of concern about Beijing’s strategic ambitions in the South China Sea. Subsequently, Chinese officials backtracked and now deny making such a

statement . [38] Still , the issue remained as valid.

3.Legal aspects
A) Nature and Status of the South China Sea Claims

The vast South China Sea region also includes island chains and submerged reefs that have been the subject of disputes, including the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands and Macclesfield Bank.) The area became a possible target for exploration by multinational oil companies. In addition, the likelihood of conflict has increased as international maritime laws have slowly been codified and institutionalized following World War II. Motivated by the desire to extend control over sea-based resources, neighbouring states in the area have increasingly come into verbal conflict and even sporadic military confrontations over sovereignty, sovereign rights, jurisdiction, and arms control efforts in the South China Sea. [39]

During the 1980s and 1990s, most of the disputing states have found themselves in a race to bolster their claims to sovereignty by gaining occupation of the islands that can support a physical presence or by establishing markers on the islands where physical occupation is not feasible. [40] In some cases claimants have even built structures on features that are completely submerged at high tide, maintaining a physical presence on these island specks under arduous and mind-numbing physical conditions. Currently, Vietnam occupies more than twenty islets or rocks, China occupies eight, Taiwan one, the Philippines eight, and Malaysia three to six. [41]

The race for occupation of the Spratly Islands has increased the likelihood of international conflict, resulting in three cases of military intimidation in recent years (setting aside China’s use of military force against Vietnamese troops to enforce its claim to the Paracels in 1974), the first of which led to military conflict. [42] This confrontation occurred between the Chinese and Vietnamese over the occupation of Fiery Cross Reef (Yung Shu Jiao) in 1988, at which time the PRC sank three Vietnamese vessels, killing seventy-two people. [43] In 1992 the Chinese announcement of an oil exploration concession to the U.S. Crestone Company, combined with the occupation of Da Lac Reef and subsequent deployment of three Romeo-class conventional submarines to patrol the area, aroused alarms among the ASEAN states, which had just called for the non-use of force in resolving the Spratly Islands dispute in the Manila Declaration on the South China Sea. [44] The third incident began with the discovery that the Chinese had occupied Mischief Reef (Meijijiao/Panganiban), a circular reef well within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines (following the Philippines’ announcement of a desktop oil exploration concession in the “Mischief Reef area”), and involved encounters between military vessels from the Philippines and the PRC in March and April 1995. It was the aptly named Mischief Reef confrontation that has catalyzed the most recent wave of interest and concern over the Spratly Islands issue. That concern was reinforced by PRC military pressures against Taiwan.

B)International Laws Related to the Dispute

The documentary background for the various territorial claims in the South China Sea is quite thin, and the historical records are often contradictory. [45] None of the claimants offers unassailable historical or legal claims. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has used “effective occupation” and discovery as primary considerations in evaluating the legitimacy of island territorial claims, although a feature’s location, its history, and whether other claimants have a record of protesting illegal occupation may be considered in determining the legitimacy of sovereignty claims to particular features. [46] Separate from the issues of who owns the islands and rocks and whether the submerged reefs of the Spratly Islands can themselves generate maritime zones is the question of whether the islands can “sustain human habitation or economic life of their own,” the minimum criterion for an island to generate its own continental shelf or EEZ [47] . Even if human life can be sustained, islands carry less

weight than continental borders in generating EEZs under the prevailing interpretations of the Law of the Sea. Artificial islands on which structures have been built are entitled to a 500-meter safety zone, but they cannot generate a territorial sea, much less a continental shelf or EEZ. Features that appear only at low tide can generate a partial twelve-mile territorial sea only if they are within twelve nautical miles of any feature that generates a territorial sea. Features submerged at low tide are not subject to sovereignty claims and generate no maritime zones at all. The acceptance by the disputing parties of the prevailing interpretation of these provisions to islands in the South China Sea has the potential to greatly reduce the area of overlapping claims, since some disputants have based their claims on an interpretation that the features themselves can generate an EEZ of up to 200 nautical miles. A strict interpretation of the Law of the Sea provision regarding a feature’s ability to “sustain human habitation or economic life of their own” may well leave few if any of the features in the Spratly Islands able to generate an EEZ, greatly reducing the potential area of

overlapping claims. Even if these islands were capable of generating an EEZ, it is unlikely that they would be considered able to generate one of 200 nautical miles. [48] After sovereignty of the islands is decided, the question of how EEZs might be defined is critical to determining the size and scope of the areas where negotiations might be necessary to resolve territorial disputes. The Law of the Sea Convention stipulates that in areas where EEZs overlap, the dispute should be settled through peaceful negotiation among the parties concerned, or the parties might voluntarily agree to third-party mediation or to judicial consideration by the ICJ. There is a slowly evolving body of international legal precedents for evaluating the validity of various claims based on the Law of the Sea, and many disputants have found creative ways to avoid sensitive sovereignty issues through limited bilateral joint resource development schemes. The Chinese and Vietnamese claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea are both based on historical claims of discovery and occupation. [49] The Chinese case is better documented, but the extent of the Chinese claims remains ambiguous and contradictory. [50] The Japanese occupied the Spratly Islands during World War II and used the island of Itu Aba (Taiping Dao) as cover for surveillance and as a supply depot, but the Japanese claim lapsed with their defeat in World War II. [51] Taiwan’s claims to Chinese ownership of the South China Sea are similar to those of the PRC, and there has been some evidence of coordination of positions on the Chinese claims in the Indonesian Workshops on the South China Sea. The Philippine claim is based on the “discovery” of the unclaimed islands of “Kalayaan” (Freedomland) by an explorer, Tomas Cloma, in 1956. This is one of the most challenged claims, and the U.S.-Philippines security commitment has been consistently interpreted by the United States as excluding Kalayaan. The Malaysian claim is based on its continental shelf claim. The Bruneian claim is also based on a straight-line projection of its EEZ as stipulated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. [52]

C) China’s Claims over the Spratly Islands in detail

Rightly or wrongly, many Western academics have emphasized China’s approach to handling its claims in the South China Sea as a critical test of Beijing’s role as a regional and global power in Asia in the twenty-first century. [53]

In particular, many ASEAN analysts worry that China has since the late 1980s been working to acquire a blue-water navy and other offensive force projection capabilities, such as longer-range aircraft, aerial refueling capabilities, and more modern, harder-to-detect submarine technology, with potential negative implications for the security interests of neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. The People’s Liberation Army navy has adopted a strategic doctrine of “offshore active defense.” [54] This doctrine envisions a midterm (10-15 years) ocean-going naval capability in which the PLA navy would be able to assert “effective control of the seas within the first island chain,” presumably including Taiwan and the South China Sea. [55] Although the Chinese navy is currently limited in its offshore capabilities and although development of indigenous production capability is taking place at a rather slow pace, concerns among Southeast Asian countries about the future development of the PLA’s force projection capabilities have heightened ASEAN sensitivities to Chinese naval actions in the South China Sea region. Off-the-shelf purchases of foreign military technology such as SU-27s, Kilo-class submarines, and other military equipment from Russia that could speed up China’s military development have attracted notice from China’s neighbors; however, the time required to learn new technologies and integrate them into China’s existing force structure and to make them operational suggests that any increase in China’s military capacity will be “incremental rather than dramatic” [56] . In response, some Southeast Asian countries have begun to take limited but significant military modernization steps of their own, meant to enhance their command and control capabilities, thereby creating the potential for a regional arms race around the South China Sea. There is conflicting analysis of China’s strategy and tactics in pursuing its claims to the Spratly Islands area. Given the PRC’s limited capability to take and hold the islands it claims, some see a pattern of “hot-and-cold” tactics by China that is intended to throw the other claimants off balance until the PRC is able to enforce its claim through intimidation or force. [57] These analysts point to Chinese “salami tactics,” in which China tests the other claimants through aggressive actions, then backs off when it meets significant resistance. [58] China’s ambiguity on the extent and nature of its claims is regarded as a tactical plot to stall or defer any attempt to achieve a negotiated settlement until China is prepared to get what it wants through military strength. [59]

Other analysts emphasize that while the political issue of sovereignty is a particularly sensitive one during a period of political transition in Beijing, the top goal of the PRC leadership for the foreseeable future is to maintain a stable environment conducive to China’s economic development. These analysts assert that China’s defense strategy of “active defense” is still focused primarily on continental defense and the ability to react to localized conflicts. [60] China’s actions in the Spratly Islands area are seen as primarily defensive, preserving China’s options vis-a-vis the other claimants as the Law of the Sea is applied. In addition, some experts have suggested that the South China Sea dispute cannot be solved in isolation from China’s other maritime disputes in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea. [61] These experts suggest that China may feel landlocked and therefore “geographically disadvantaged.” [62] Such a condition might make these maritime border disputes more difficult to settle because the strategic stakes for a China encircled by discrete maritime boundaries would be too high. Given the reverberations from sporadic military confrontations in the South China Sea in recent years, all parties have reason to be vigilant for opportunities to pursue progress on the Spratly Islands issue.