Turmoil in the South China Sea

China’s ambitions in the South China Sea will have far-reaching international implications well into the future

Joseph MicallefThe Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has unanimously ruled that China does not have any historic title to a huge expanse of the South China Sea, which it had claimed.

The July 12 decision came in response to a case filed by the Philippines in 2013, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), over the Chinese seizure of the Scarborough Shoal.

The shoal is a series of reefs and rocks. Its highest point, South Rock, is less than two metres above the ocean during high tide.

The court’s ruling had three key provisions.

First, it rejected completely China’s assertion that it had a claim to the shoal, noting that, “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the nine-dash line.”

Secondly, the court reaffirmed that the rocks and reefs are not “islands” as defined by the UNCLOS treaty because they are not capable of supporting human habitation and are not entitled to the 335-km exclusive economic zone.

Thirdly, the court found that the shoal was within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines and that by interfering in the area, Beijing had violated Manila’s sovereign rights.

The court’s ruling on the “nine-dash line” has far-reaching implications on the various disputes between China and its neighbours over sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s claim was based on a map published on Dec. 1, 1947, by the government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. The map showed an area demarcated by 11 dashes, encompassing the bulk of the South China Sea, which was being claimed by the Chinese government. Taiwan asserts a similar claim, also based on that original map.

The 11 dashes were later reduced to nine when Beijing, at the behest of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, reduced its claims in the Gulf of Tonkin. Later versions of the map added a 10th dash, extending China’s claimed sovereignty toward Taiwan and the East China Sea. The reference to the “nine-dash line,” however, has remained.

China’s interest in the South China Sea has been driven by a fundamental and far-reaching change in China’s economy. Historically, China has been largely self-sufficient. Today, however, its economy is heavily dependent on external trade, for markets for its manufactured goods and for raw materials.

The vast majority of China’s commodity imports travel by sea, as do virtually all its exports. Sea power, which has not figured prominently in Chinese history, is thus assuming far more significance for China.

China’s defensive doctrine identifies two key boundaries: the “first-island-chain” and the “second-island-chain.” The first-island-chain encompasses a broad area centred around the South and East China Seas. It begins off the coast of Indochina, curves around Borneo and extends north all the way to the southern coast of Japan.

From a naval standpoint, Chinese strategists see this region as “China’s backyard.” Moreover, it is characterized by a series of “choke points” where hostile naval forces could blockade Chinese shipping and cripple China’s economy. China’s claim was designed to permanently control this territory. Some $6.5 trillion in goods pass through the region yearly.

China’s objectives would require every one of its neighbours along the South and East China Seas to significantly compromise their claims in the area. It would also force withdrawal by the U.S. Navy from the East Asian littoral. It’s unlikely that the United States’ defence treaties with those countries would survive such a pullback.

Even more problematic is Beijing’s delineation of the “second-island-chain.” This zone encompasses the Philippines and Japan, and extends eastward to Palau, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

China’s ambitions to dominate the sea-air space as far as the second-island-chain may be wishful thinking. China’s ambitious naval construction program, however, suggests that the strategy is more than empty rhetoric. For the U.S. to be effectively excluded from this second zone would represent a collapse of its naval power in the region.

Ottawa, too, has an interest in the turmoil. The region accounts for about 10 per cent of Canada’s external trade. And the legal issues over sovereignty in the region will likely resurface in the disputes over control of the Arctic.

In short, China’s ambitions in the South China Sea will have far-reaching international implications well into the future.

Joseph Micallef is a historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics. 

Joseph is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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