In the South China Sea, Beijing is a big fish in a small pond
Barry Desker says despite The Hague’s ruling against China, it is clear that disunited Southeast Asian states are no obstacle to Beijing’s maritime ambitions
The risk of confrontation between China and the maritime states of Southeast Asia has increased significantly following the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling that China’s expansive claim to the waters of the South China Sea enclosed by its “nine-dash line” had no legal basis under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and China could not claim historical rights to resources within the enclosed area. It criticised China for denying Philippine fishermen access to shared fishing grounds and aggravating the dispute by engaging in extensive land reclamation and the building of artificial islands.
The arbitral tribunal noted that the entitlement of islands to a territorial sea and exclusive economic zone has to be based on natural conditions, not the result of augmentation through land reclamation. It concluded that none of the features in the Spratlys are islands capable of sustaining human or economic life on their own, including the Taiwanese-occupied Itu Aba, the largest natural land mass in the Spratlys.
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In a striking indictment of Chinese actions, the tribunal observed that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights within the Philippine exclusive economic zone by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing within the zone.
China rejects the jurisdiction of the UN tribunal. Ahead of the announcement, Chinese policymakers engaged in a diplomatic offensive, warning that any decision undermining Chinese sovereignty “will increase tension and undermine peace in the region”. The Chinese government has since rejected the ruling, calling it “null and void”.
Although China has supported calls for an early conclusion to its negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, in practice China has stalled negotiations by insisting on concurrent progress on implementation of the 2012 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, as well as proposing many related projects as a distraction. Just as the declaration took 10 years to negotiate, China’s tactics will stretch the code of conduct negotiations.
In the meantime, through its assertive actions, China is changing the facts on the ground. There is a growing Chinese naval and coastguard presence in the South China Sea. China has also engaged in large-scale land reclamation, including the building of runways, wharves, a weather observation station and four-storey building on Subi Reef, as well as similar developments on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys and Woody Island in the Paracels. Recent years have witnessed sharp exchanges between China and the two most vocal Southeast Asian claimant states, the Philippines and Vietnam.
China has now gone further, challenging Southeast Asian states like Indonesia and Malaysia that have generally adopted a low-key approach to South China Sea issues.
On March 19, a Chinese coastguard vessel prevented a Chinese fishing boat from being detained for fishing within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone near the Natuna islands. In response to protests by Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi, China said that it recognised Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna islands but the detained Chinese fishermen should be released as they were fishing in China’s traditional fishing grounds, an argument contrary to the UN convention, which does not recognise historical rights. China has since stated that there are overlaps between its maritime territorial claims and those of Indonesia.
On March 24, 100 Chinese fishing vessels were reported fishing in Malaysian waters off Miri, Sarawak. Frequent intrusions by Chinese coastguard vessels and fisheries protection vessels into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone have been observed in recent months.
China’s actions in the hallways of diplomacy are also troubling. A meeting in Kunming ( 昆明 ) on June 14 between Asean and China, to commemorate 25 years of dialogue between the two parties, ended in disarray. China used its leverage with Cambodia and Laos to block a joint statement by Asean, after Asean ministers had reached an agreement to issue the statement expressing “serious concerns” over the South China Sea disputes which “have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability” in the region.
The discord within Asean became publicly known because Malaysia issued the statement, only to withdraw it later, reportedly because of frustration that the Asean decision was blocked by Chinese lobbying of some Asean governments.
These developments have occurred even as China is emerging as the leading trading partner and key investor in Southeast Asian economies. Southeast Asia’s historical experience is that the region would be seen by China as part of its zone of influence, just as Southeast Asian kingdoms had welcomed tributary relationships with China in the pre-colonial era. While their economic interests suggest that these states would align with a rising China, the divergent perspectives on the South China Sea have led maritime Southeast Asian states paradoxically to strengthen their ties with the United States.
The political reality is that Southeast Asian states do not pose a threat to China. A rising China which asserts its interests in the South China Sea will increase their wariness of China, even as economic linkages bind the region to it.
Historically, threats to Chinese regimes came from the open spaces of Central Asia, west of China. Although the Soviet Union was regarded as the primary threat after the Sino-Soviet split in 1964, China’s growing confidence in its relationship with Russia in recent years has lowered China’s land-based threat perception. President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China last month to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Sino-Russian treaty of friendship, his fourth since Xi Jinping (習近平) assumed the Chinese presidency in 2013, was accompanied by a flurry of trade and investment deals and warm exchanges between the two leaders.
Today, the primary risks on China’s western borders are from separatist elements in the Uygur community as well as from Tibetan demands for independence. These pressures are domestic and limited in impact, although the Islamic State may take advantage of Uygur Islamic sentiments as part of its global jihad.
China’s leaders recognise that the only power with the capacity to threaten them is the United States, the sole superpower, which has a network of alliances in the Asia-Pacific. American naval and air power dominates the western Pacific. These concerns have led China to focus eastwards towards the Pacific. China’s assertion of its claims in the East and South China Seas reflect these maritime interests.
While the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration was clearly against China, it is not enforceable. But the tribunal’s decision will heighten tensions within Asean. It increases the likelihood that China will exert more pressure on the claimant states to negotiate on a bilateral basis and give due recognition to China’s interests. Next week’s annual meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Vientiane will demonstrate China’s leverage on Asean states.
Barry Desker is distinguished fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore