Is China grabbing the South China Sea?

By Jonathan Power

Napoleon warned us that China was a sleeping giant best left undisturbed. No longer. The giant is well awake and not only has the West disturbed it, many of the West’s elite appear to fear it. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the debate about China’s growing naval power and in particular its attitude towards China’s claim for sovereignty over the South China Sea, to which other bordering nations – the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia – also claim rights.

Long before Napoleon China had Admiral Zheng He who in the fifteenth century led large fleets as far away as Africa. But unlike his European contemporaries Zheng He and his emperor had mainly curiosity. They possessed no idea of subjugation, slavery or colonisation. They were not on any mission to “civilize”. Only in the most recent of years has China given its navy prominence and even today its expenditure on naval power compared with the US or Europe is small.

Last week the US and the Philippines staged a mock battle to show they could recapture a Philippino island from foreign forces. Earlier in April a Philippino warship found Chinese fishing boats close into the Scarbough reef, a submerged shoal of rocks that the Philippines claim. The fishermen called in two Chinese civilian patrol boats. Beijing persuaded the Philippines to withdraw their warship and replace it with a civilian coastguard ship. But China did not withdraw either its fishing boats nor its patrol boats. “Chicken can be a dangerous game”, observed The Economist last week.

Neighbouring countries have rushed to occupy as many of the sea’s land spots as possible. Today China controls the entire Paracels islands and 15 reefs and shoals within the Spratleys. Both islands probably have in their waters large deposits of oil, gas and minerals. Since 2007 China has repeatedly warned foreign oil companies that cooperating with Vietnam would affect their business in China.

Beijing insists that its historic map, claiming the whole South China Sea, is a valid territorial claim. It argues that this has been so since the 15th century. But its contours are vague and it’s not recognised under international law.

Contradicting this claim China has ratified the UN’s Law of The Sea Treaty. The treaty compels states to surrender the majority of their historical claims in favour of the maritime zones awarded under the convention- in particular a 200 kilometre off- shore economic zone. (But the US has not, shooting itself in the foot.)

The other countries involved have not stood still. The Philippines has proposed that ASEAN (the regional cooperation body) set aside disputes among themselves and form a united front to force Beijing to clarify its aims. The US has reiterated UN policy that there must be freedom of navigation in the sea and, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group, Beijing is worried that US involvement will internationalize the disputes, isolating China.

The report also points out that “the proliferation of domestic actors and the complicated structure behind Chinese management of the issue has often been described with reference to the traditional myth of nine dragons stirring up the sea.”

There is a bulky bureaucracy which includes 11 ministerial level government agencies. Then there are the powerful national oil companies. Apparently the politburo for years has not given any directives and the foreign ministry lacks the clout to bring them into line, although it has to carry the can when dealing with the outside world. Its work is complicated by the lack of legal clarity, growing nationalist opinion within China, the belief that economic growth and political stability at home outweigh foreign policy and that a vociferous military outranks the foreign ministry, even not reporting some of its decisions to the politburo.

China loses much credibility with its refusal to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice. A few years ago Nigeria took the issue of its dispute with neighbouring Cameroon over the oil-rich Bokassa peninsular to the Court. It lost and President Olusegun Obasanjo gracefully turned over the territory to Cameroon. China also refuses to use the arbitration mechanisms of the Law of the Sea.

However, the debate is not frozen in its parameters. Some of the agencies and the National People’s Congress have been calling for the establishment of a coordinating body. At the top there is the feeling that China suffers from a lack of good policy options.

There is now appears to be a policy of leaving this intractable problem to the next generation as was first proposed by Den Xiaoping in 1978. Last year China reaffirmed these guidelines when it signed the White paper on Peaceful Development with ASEAN.

China should loose no time in sorting out its bureaucratic mess and taking the issue to the International Court of Justice as Nigeria did.

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