Beijing’s play for the South China Sea is just the beginning

BY Ron Shine   /  22 July 2020

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Davos speech in 2017, in which he claimed to be taking on the mantle of leadership on globalisation, free trade and multilateralism, was remarkable in two ways.

The lesser of these was that serious people seemed to be taken in by it – transparently seeking a new holder of the faith following President Trump’s apostasy on the subject, rather as British Marxists like Martin Jacques (once editor of Marxism Today, later the author of “When China Rules the World”) transferred their faith from the Soviet Union to China when the one collapsed and the other took off economically.

But the more serious aspect of the speech was its disingenuousness. Despite China’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, it has consciously decoupled from the free movement of information since the mid-2000s, with the blocking of almost every Western social media product alongside numerous traditional media platforms, from Bloomberg to the Financial Times. China is no upholder of international rules and systems, and rejects these entirely when it suits.

Its most egregious flouting of international norms is not, however, in the area of trade rules, on which China essentially behaves as a free rider by using the freedoms of global trade while evading the obligations. The real area where China is actively undermining international norms is in maritime boundaries. Its claim of what is known as the “nine-dash line” over almost the entirety of the South China Sea is a territorial assertion so grandiose and so flagrant that it almost beggars belief. From China’s southernmost actual land point, the island of Hainan, it claims almost the entire ocean, to within a few dozen miles of Bahrain, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam – around one thousand miles distant, on the basis of declared ownership of various rocks, reefs and atolls.

This is based on assertion, domestic normalisation (every map of China must include the nine-dash line), and claims of historical precedent, rather than any formal and specifically defined claim. For example, a map of the Republic of China from 1947 using the nine-dash line has been cited as showing the extent of Chinese maritime control – which is rather like the United Kingdom laying claim to India on the basis of maps from the same period.

In 2013, the Philippines formally initiated arbitration proceedings, stating that the nine-dash line was unlawful under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both nations are parties. China, however refused to participate, issuing a position paper saying: “The issue of territorial sovereignty falls beyond the purview of the Convention”.

A People’s Daily editorial put it still more boldly: “The case, from the very beginning, is a trap set by the US to maintain its dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.”

However, in July 2016 the tribunal sided unanimously with the Philippines, finding no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources, and that there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights” over the nine-dash line area.

China, of course, immediately rejected the ruling. But it has not been standing idly by; it has been building up islands and military installations on the reefs, with radar domes, shelters for surface-to-air missiles and a runway long enough for fighter jets. Legal niceties matter rather less when China has military control of the sea.

As the head of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, testified before Congress in 2018: “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

Yet the United States is not inclined just to go along with a fait accompli. Until recently the US administration said it “objected” to the nine-dash line, urged the affected countries to work it out peacefully, and conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) through the contested area. But last Monday there was a significant strengthening of US opposition to China’s claim from the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. In a statement he said:

“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them… As the United States has previously stated, and as specifically provided in the Convention, the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding on both parties. Today we are aligning the U.S. position on the PRC’s maritime claims in the SCS with the Tribunal’s decision… We stand with the international community in defence of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose “might makes right” in the South China Sea or the wider region.”

This makes plain that the US “rejects” the Chinese claim and is a sharp increase in rhetorical force. This in itself is a shift in policy and represents another front in what is clearly becoming a new Cold War. It pledges “defence of the freedom of the sea”, in a clear challenge to the Chinese military build-up.

With its important fisheries, possible huge oil and gas reserves and its role as a route for one-third of global shipping, the strategic importance of the South China Sea is huge. Who controls it may control south Asia. China is clearly making a play for dominance of the Sea, but with the US positioning itself as a broker of the balance of power, Chinese hegemony is not yet assured.


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