The “nine-dashed line” stretches more than 2,000km from continental China to near the coastlines of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, encompassing two thirds of the South China Sea. Most people would agree that these are open seas through which the ships of all nations should be able to pass freely.
Hainan’s new regulations allow public security and border defense authorities to board, inspect, impound or expel ships and boats in this area; or to order them to stop sailing, alter or reverse course. It authorizes the authorities to apprehend vessels that infringe China’s rules, or impound their navigational equipment or other devices, and to investigate them in accordance with China’s laws and regulations.
These regulations have provoked a clamor of objections from all sides. At first it seemed as if it was a case of regional officials taking nationalism to an extreme. However, a few days ago the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs endorsed the regulations saying that China has the right to allow its maritime police to board ships and boats in the South China Sea.
The notion of “maritime power” has come into fashion in China in recent years, and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) says China should establish itself as a maritime power. At first glance, the passport map and Hainan’s new regulations appear to be in keeping with this trend, since they call for an expansion of China’s sovereignty across the sea.
In reality, however, the idea of extending maritime territory as far out over the ocean as possible is completely at odds with the ideology of maritime power. It is the mindset of continental powers. The continental concept of power is all about occupying land. Although maritime powers are generally in favor of extending jurisdiction over the seabed to include the whole continental shelf, when it comes to the sea surface, they want to see territorial waters kept narrow — the narrower, the better — and have long opposed the proposal for countries to have exclusive economic zones (EEZs) extending 200 nautical miles (370km) out over the seabed.
The reason is simple. Maritime powers have powerful navies and big merchant fleets and are highly capable of developing and exploiting the seas. The smaller countries’ territorial seas and EEZs are, the freer these maritime powers will be to sail wherever they want. On the other hand, weak countries bordering on the sea want to protect their interests by extending their territorial seas and EEZs. Following World War II, countries advocating each of these points of view formed two opposing groups that crossed swords at numerous international maritime conferences, and the present-day International Law of the Sea is a product of the wrangling between these two sides.
When people go to extremes, they are more likely to do infantile things. China’s passport maps and its regulations treating the South China Sea as its “territorial sea” both represent very confused values and concepts. They are infantile acts of the kind that you get when extreme nationalism goes to people’s heads. Precisely because they are so childish, these two theatrical productions are sure to get taken off stage sooner or later.