Much attention has been paid to China’s determination to exert its influence over the East and South China seas using both political and military power.
The final few weeks of last year saw a rapid deterioration of the diplomatic goodwill China had built with its maritime neighbors over the past several decades, threatening regional stability and risking an arms race with the US, Taiwan and Japan.
China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone over disputed territories in the East China Sea is far more aggressive than has been acknowledged in the media.
First: China has claimed more islands and waterways than it could actually possess under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Since 2010, China has regarded the East and South China seas as legitimate areas in which to flex its muscles, build garrisons on strategic islands and strengthen air and naval strengh as a challenge to the US.
The new air defense identification zone has added uncertainty to the situation and disrupted the balance of power in the western Pacific. When US Vice President Joe Biden recently called on Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to abandon the zone, China viewed the US as an interloper to its sphere of influence and was determined to militarize the maritime frontier.
Second: No institutional mechanism exists under international law to deal with overlapping claims to maritime territories in Asia. The latest diplomatic tensions have arisen due to a longstanding territorial conflict in which China proclaims to have sovereignty and control over its maritime peripheries.
The territorial disputes have sharpened the irreconcilable differences between China and neighboring countries over the control of maritime space — especially groups of resource-rich islands — and the exercise of maritime jurisdiction related to actions taking place in international waters. Unless there is a multilateral framework to resolve conflicts among the claimant states, maritime rifts are likely to escalate this year.
Detecting the rising discontent over China’s power projection, the US has not only clarified the status of the East and South China seas as being open transportation corridors for all nations, but has also urged Japan, South Korea and ASEAN to negotiate with China multilaterally, rather than through individual bargains that would only favor Beijing at the expense of weaker states such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
To the US and its allies, freedom of the seas is an important international principle that guarantees the freedom of navigation for vessels of all countries.
Any nation’s attempt to make an open-ocean zone fall under its territorial sovereignty contradicts this legal principle and disrupts the global system.
Out of fear of being marginalized, China condemned ASEAN for siding with the US and Japan. In bullying Southeast Asia, it has undercut decade-long diplomatic reassurances and confidence-building efforts.
China has succeeded in using Cambodia to outmaneuver the claimant countries in ASEAN, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. This tactic was based on a premise that ASEAN lacked the collective will to confront Beijing.
However, China appears to have overplayed its hand in declaring the new air zone. Making other countries submissive is different from the art of winning trust and exercising leadership.