China has once again thrown fuel on the fire that is the growing tensions over the South China Sea, with its announcement on Thursday that, starting next month, police in Hainan Island will have the power to board, seize and expel foreign ships that have “illegally” entered the province’s sea areas.
In Beijing’s eyes, Hainan Province’s sea areas encompass 2 million square kilometers of ocean, including the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), which are claimed whole or in part by several of China’s neighbors, including Taiwan. Taiwan has coast guard, navy and air force officers stationed on Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) — the largest island in the Spratly archipelago.
While Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said China was simply exercising “the legitimate right of a sovereign state” to carry out “maritime management” and that all countries “have freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” red flags have been raised over the plan by ASEAN, the US, the Philippines, Indonesia and other nations. There is good reason for concern, considering that the area covered by China’s new plan includes some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, through which more than half the world’s oil tanker traffic passes.
This is the latest disingenuous move on the part of Beijing, which has been steadily pushing boundaries in the region to see how much it can get away with — just as it has done with its new passports showing a huge swathe of the South China Sea and disputed border areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai China as Chinese territory — but it is a move that could easily escalate the risk of an armed confrontation.
These moves, coupled with the growing xenophobic nationalism among the Chinese public and its military, have made its neighbors, friendly or not, very nervous and increased the insistence of Japan, the Philippines and others that the US maintain a strong presence in the region.
The China Daily reported that Hainan police will have the right to take over ships or their communication systems if foreign ships or their crew members violate China’s regulations. The initial definition of what Beijing would consider illegal activities ranges from just entering the province’s waters without permission, to damaging coastal defense facilities to “engaging in publicity that threatens national security,” all of which are nebulous.
That it will be police, rather than units of the People’s Liberation Army, taking action is simply a facade to appear less threatening.
Nevertheless, Beijing’s move is a threat — to freedom of the seas, to transportation links and to the global economy.
China has long refused to countenance any kind of multilateral treaty covering the region, preferring to throw its weight around by insisting on bilateral negotiations with its smaller neighbors, a typical bully’s tactic. It ignored President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) recent East China Sea peace initiative with regards to the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). It even refuses to discuss a code of conduct or protocol for use in disputed waters. The only code of conduct China is interested in is its own.
However, just as one person’s space for personal freedom ends where it intersects with another’s, a nation’s right to act as it wants must be tempered with the willingness to respect the rights of others. China has cried “containment effort” when the US reasserted its strategic interest in Asia, but it is not containment when neighbors are trying to protect themselves.
China has yet to learn that it cannot demand respect, it must earn it. Its words and actions have had just the opposite effect. Beijing appears to suffer from a case of foot-in-mouth disease, but it is one that is becoming less funny and more incendiary with each new pronouncement.