Before Japan’s elections on Dec. 16, China increased tensions over the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkakus in Japan, with the result that Japanese public opinion took a turn to the right in opposition to China, dealing the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) — the most pro-Chinese Japanese party ever — and other pro-Chinese candidates a severe blow.
Why did China create further tension with Japan? A statement circulating on the Internet might provide the answer.
The statement reads: “In the past, strong foreign powers invaded China, but faced with China’s rise, ‘weaker’ foreign powers are now bullying China.”
What a tragedy. Of course they must fight back, and Japan is one of those weaker foreign powers. International conventions on marine demarcation made after World War II were basically created for the weaker countries that had just managed to shake off imperial rule to help them resist the strong powers.
In 1945, the US, a strong power, proclaimed that the continental shelf off the coast of the US was under its jurisdiction. Meanwhile, US fishing boats repeatedly entered Latin American waters citing the “principle of the freedom of the high seas.”
The continental shelf off the coast of weaker countries, such as Chile, is relatively narrow, but they were still unable to protect this area. Instead, Chile claimed maritime rights within a 200 nautical mile (370km) zone and expanded the extent of their territorial waters against the US proclamation.
The US was opposed to these declarations, and at the time, China strongly supported the weaker countries to fight US hegemony.
Now, faced with the East China Sea dispute, Japan believes that since the waters between it and China are less than 400 nautical miles wide — twice the size of the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone — the waters should be divided by a midline.
This approach is more in line with the tradition of weaker countries, while China’s claim that the line should be drawn along the continental shelf is in line with the approach of a strong power.
When China proposed its demarcation plan for the area to the UN, it emphasized that it was drafted in accordance with international conventions and it argues for the plan forcefully.
Today, several other weaker countries have joined the “bullying” of China. In addition to Japan, there is South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei. Their exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea and China’s U-shaped line have a high degree of overlap.
When the UN requested that each country submit its own demarcation plans in 2009, they proposed plans based on detailed measurements in accordance with the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf.
However, China opposes such plans and says that it has indisputable sovereignty, rights and jurisdiction over the islands and waters in the area. It also reserves its right to submit to the UN its preliminary information indicative of the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.
Beijing still has not submitted this information to the UN, and it demands one-on-one negotiations with the other countries involved.
Even some Chinese Internet users comment that Beijing’s 2009 submission of the “outer limits of the continental shelf in the East China Sea” was decent and convincing. So why does it not now follow the same standards in the South China Sea, instead of adopting the opposite approach?