The reason is quite simple. The U-shaped area that China claims in the South China Sea covers 2.1 million square kilometers. It makes up the “central basin” of the South China Sea, and it is surrounded by sloping continental shelf, which is as deep as 5km. The James Shoal (Zengmu Shoal, 曾母暗沙) at the southernmost tip of the area is more than 2,000km from China, a distance several times the length of the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone or the 350km extent of the continental shelf.
There are rich deposits of oil and gas in the South China Sea. China estimates that the U-shaped area could hold as much as one-third of China’s oil and gas, but most of these resources are concentrated on the continental shelf within 100 nautical miles of the coasts of the weaker countries in the southern and southeastern South China Sea.
These countries have more than 1,000 oil wells producing 50 million tonnes per year, while China’s wells have so far produced neither a drop of oil nor a whiff of gas.
If we demarcate the area in accordance with the Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on the Continental Shelf, all the waters with rich oil and gas deposits belong to the weaker countries, while China only has the waters on the northern continental shelf, where there is much less oil and gas, not to mention that the area is less than one-third of the U-shaped area.
Hence, Beijing is opposed to marine demarcation based on either a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone or a 350km continental shelf.
Moreover, strong powers are in favor of freedom of the seas, while weaker countries favor an expansion of their sovereign territorial waters. Today, China is treating the South China Sea as part of its own territorial waters, and it is behaving as a weaker country in its unlimited expansion of its sovereign territorial waters.
It attempts to expand the area by 2,000km, all the way to the doorstep of the weaker countries. It is more dominating than any hegemonic power, and it even includes international sea lanes in its claims.
After the UN Charter, the Convention on the Law of the Sea has the highest number of signatory states. Although China signed it to fight US hegemony and support the weaker countries at the time, it refuses to accept international jurisdiction or arbitration for the current marine demarcation. Meanwhile, it appeals to the convention to protest its rights in the East China Sea.
Thus, it is switching status between that of a weaker country, a strong power and a superpower as it sees fit. It only abides by laws that are favorable to its own interests and does not abide by any unfavorable laws.
As for the Chinese people, they merely echo Liu Huaqing (劉華清), the father of the modern Chinese navy, in claiming that China is not bullying the weaker countries, but that it is the other way round.
In its attempts to resist the weaker countries, this rising power has launched an aircraft carrier and spread panic among these weaker countries because they do not know how to interact with China.
The result is that they have to purchase more arms and turn to the US to balance the situation.