Wed, Aug 19, 2015 - Page 8 News List

South China Sea feud bubbling up

By Ho-ting Tu 杜和庭

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.

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