The security competition in the South China Sea has entered a new phase. China’s incremental assertiveness over territorial claims, the US’ “pivot” toward Asia and the responses of other nations have caused a tectonic change in the balance of power within the region. The uncertainty has made the possibility of a conflict dangerously real, especially for Taiwan.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the South China Sea has been one of the hot spots where the US and China compete fiercely for dominance. On April 1, 2001, a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese J-8 fighter collided about 113km from China’s Hainan Island. The J-8 crashed and the pilot lost his life. The EP-3 was forced to land on Hainan Island, where its 24 crew members were detained.
On Aug. 19 last year, a Chinese Su-27 fighter came within 10m of a US Navy P-8 surveillance plane about 217km east of Hainan Island. When approaching the P-8, the Su-27 intentionally performed a barrel roll to display its weapons.
The tension is mounting on the seas as well. On March 5, 2009, the USNS Impeccable was harassed by a group of Chinese ships that approached to within about 15m of the US vessel in international waters 121km south of Hainan Island. Chinese crew demanded that the US ship leave and even tried to capture the ship’s underwater listening equipment. On Nov. 26, 2013, the USS Cowpens was blocked by a Chinese navy vessel in international waters, crossing its bow at a distance of about 500m, where it stopped.
These incidents arose because of different interpretations of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in which China considers US military ships have no right to conduct surveillance operations. However, the US insists that the EEZ is in international waters, which allows freedom of navigation, giving nations the right to conduct military activities.
According to Article 55 and 56 of the UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the EEZ, stretching from the territorial sea baseline to 200 nautical miles (370km), is an area that coastal states’ sovereign rights over the waters are limited to exploration and use of marine resources and energy production below the surface of sea. It suggests that the surface waters of the EEZ are international waters, which permit all kinds of ships, including military vessels, free access.
However, the situation between claimant states in the South China Sea is far more complicated and bloodier than that between the US and China. Not only did China and Vietnam fight two major naval battles — over the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) in 1974 and the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) in 1988 — which saw casualties on both sides, but also China and the Philippines have clashed numerous times — including exchanges of fire, arrests of fishermen and ramming among other incidents — over the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) since the 1990s.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea with its “nine-dash line,” originally called the 11-dash line when it was created by the Republic of China (ROC) in 1947, after the Spratlys and the Paracels were returned to the ROC following the Cairo and Potsdam declarations and which China claims it discovered more than 2,000 years ago. That is why Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) insists that in terms of history, traditional international law, treaties and avoiding shaming ancestors, China’s sovereign rights in the South China Sea are indisputable.
For other claimants, China’s nine-dash line is unreasonable and totally unacceptable. Vietnam and the Philippines also have compelling historical arguments to defend their claims over areas of the South China Sea, which is known as the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines and the East Sea in Vietnam. The disputed waters are their traditional fisheries as well. For example, the Scarborough Shoal, which China has controlled since 2012 after a tense month-long standoff with the Philippines, is about 198km west of Subic Bay in the Philippines and 1,019km southeast of Hainan Island. However, China does not allow Philippine fishermen to enter the area.
Containing 320 articles and nine annexes, UNCLOS cannot solve the disputes among claimant states. Signed in 1982 and taking effect in 1994, postdating the nine-dash line, UNCLOS stipulates that the rights of coastal states are based on the EEZ instead of historical claims, directly discounting China’s nine-dash line.
In March last year, former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀) said: “It is naive to believe that a strong China will accept the conventional definition of what parts of the sea around it are under its jurisdiction.”
Referring to China’s attitude on the South China Sea, a Financial Times report on June 19 last year said that “China doesn’t want to be bound by an international system developed when it was a weak state.”
Since last year, China has conducted rapid and extensive land reclamation activities on seven reefs or shoals, turning them into fully fledged islands to reinforce its territorial claims. Satellite imagery shows China has constructed military and other facilities, including artillery, early-warning radars, hangars, barracks and ports. Most noticeably, it has built at least two, probably three, airstrips of more than 3km, suitable for all kinds of military jets.
Despite all claimant states failing to obey the agreement of the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, according to US estimates, by June the total area reclaimed by China had reached 809 hectares, compared with about two hectares in January last year, which is more than all the land reclaimed by all the other claimants. China is building a non-moving “aircraft carrier” 1,600km from its coast.
“It won’t be movable, but it also won’t be sinkable,” a Time magazine report said in May.
Although China says that it is willing to solve the territorial disputes in accordance with international law, it nonetheless refuses multilateral approaches and adamantly insists on negotiating bilaterally with other claimants. Despite having said that, it has categorically rejected the case, submitted by the Philippines to arbitration at the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague, to settle disputes. China’s calculation is that it can easily dominate negotiations with its overwhelming political, military and economic might when dealing bilaterally with small Southeast Asian states.
China’s assertive posture has inadvertently caused Southeast Asian states and major powers to cooperate closely to oppose Chinese hegemony. For example, the Philippines and the US signed a 10-year defense pact in April last year, which enables the US to use at least eight bases in the Philippines; for the first time, Japan joined a major biennial US-Australia military exercise last month; the Philippines and Japan held their second-ever joint military exercises last month; and in the same month their leaders met in Tokyo to discuss a series of military cooperation events, including a visiting force deal and defense equipment transfers. According to reports, Manila’s wish list includes patrol aircraft, submarines and destroyers.
Although it is a major claimant, controlling Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) — the largest natural island in the Spratlys — Taiwan is totally marginalized, excluded from participating in any discussions over the South China Sea dispute. Under the objection of the Philippines, it was barred from joining the hearing of the arbitration case in The Hague.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) proposed a South China Sea Initiative in June in the hope of finding solutions to the dilemma and increasing the “visibility of Taiwan” in the issue. Despite Taipei repeatedly emphasizing that it does not stand on the same side as China, it cannot convince its neighbors and the international community, largely because the wording of Ma’s South China Sea Initiative is almost identical to the one former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) proposed in 1990 to solve the South China Sea disputes, not to mention the similarities between Taiwan’s “11-dot line,” which the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) issued in 1947, and China’s nine-dash line.
No signs indicate that a major clash is imminent in this area any time soon. However, for Taiwan, the situation is much different. Vietnam and the Philippines, although their naval forces are intimidating enough to threaten Taiwan, are modernizing their armed forces by acquiring new warships and submarines. It is highly likely that instead of directly challenging China, over time when better equipped, these two countries could gain more confidence in asserting their rights and attempt to challenge Taiwan’s claims.
On the other hand, under the political blockade from China, Taiwan has been excluded from formal regional dialogue and cooperation for several decades, lacking mutual trust and practical channels to contact these countries. When tension arises, without dialogue and confidence building measures existing between them, it is believed that Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines could easily overact, swiftly escalating tension into crisis.
The situation would be even worse and more unpredictable if the US or China got involved. Maintaining a peaceful South China Sea is possible, but it will take much more attention than it has been given to date and Taiwan’s role should no longer be ignored.
Ho-ting Tu is a journalist and international political analyst based in Taiwan.
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